MILLINOCKET, Maine – Town Council members have delayed a decision to sue the state in search of $216,000 in state aid, but opted Thursday to retain an attorney in case they have to.
The council twice voted 6-1 to table until April 12 orders to sue the state for full $720,000 Sudden and Severe Impact funding Gov. Paul LePage denied the town earlier this month and to rescind a $50,000 one-time payment at the center of its dispute with the governor.
With the Legislative Council agreeing earlier Thursday to table until late April a bill by Rep. Herb Clark seeking legislators’ permission to file a lawsuit, which the law requires, councilors said they had little reason to escalate their fight. But that doesn’t mean they won’t sue or take another legal course, council Chairman John Davis said.
“One thing you have to remember: We didn’t jump off this cliff. We got pushed off,” Davis said Thursday.
The council’s actions didn’t produce much of a reaction from LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
“The administration does not feel it is productive to play this out in the media any longer,” Bennett said, “but we look forward to continuing to work with officials from both towns.”
On March 7, LePage issued $504,000 in Sudden and Severe Impact funds to both East Millinocket and Millinocket. LePage claimed that Millinocket officials would have received more but they broke their pledge to pay $50,000 annually toward the operation of the East Millinocket-based Dolby landfill, Bennett has said.
State officials sought to allocate $150,000 to landfill operations annually, with East Millinocket and Millinocket contributing $50,000 each in cash or in-kind services annually. The state’s taking ownership of Dolby was crucial to Cate Street Capital’s fall purchase of the East Millinocket and Millinocket paper mills, which restored about 216 jobs to the region.
Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said he first learned of the governor’s decision during a March 6 telephone call in which LePage threatened to pull his support from a proposed natural gas line that would run to the Katahdin region paper mills if Millinocket failed to agree to multiyear payments.
And while East Millinocket hasn’t yet received its $504,000 — just an assurance from state education officials that it would come in monthly allotments starting next week, East Millinocket school Superintendent Quenten Clark said Thursday — Millinocket received a $504,000 check on March 8.
During Thursday’s meeting, councilors who had said LePage had lied maintained their belligerence while others struck conciliatory notes and praised him like they did when he announced the mills’ sale last fall.
Councilor Michael Madore challenged state officials to produce documents that show Millinocket having agreed to a multiyear deal. Millinocket has several proving otherwise, councilors have said, adding that the town attorney has told them that LePage’s actions might violate the state’s Sudden and Severe Impact law.
Councilor John Raymond thanked East Millinocket leaders for their statements Wednesday “coming out and backing us up with what we have been saying right along” — that no multiyear deal to fund Dolby was ever made.
“Governor LePage, if you want the $50,000, come and get it. That’s all we’re going to give you,” Raymond said.
Councilor Jimmy Busque said LePage’s actions regarding the Dolby landfill were wrong but he thanked the governor for helping engineer the mills’ sale and getting the previous mills’ owner to extend the mills’ decommissioning date. Everyone appreciates LePage’s efforts, Busque said.
“He brought us a very good company that is looking to invest in us and that believes in us,” Busque said.
“He worked tirelessly to make this deal happen,” Busque added, calling the mills’ sale period “a trying time, a stressful time, a time when the clock was ticking and we certainly applaud him.”
Councilors also praised Clark, D-Millinocket, and Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, for their work on the landfill and mills, though Conlogue reported that the Maine’s attorney general declined to offer much help to Clark on his lawsuit bill.
Conlogue said that town officials believe they can pursue other legal action against the state that does not require legislators’ permission. Research of those options is under way.
“It is important that the governor follow the law and release the money due to the town,” Conlogue said. “His opinions do not belong in [this process.] He must obey the law because he has sworn to uphold it.”