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Towns join forces to address bond freeze
STATE — In a show of solidarity, officials from towns and cities where redevelopment projects have been stalled by Governor Paul LePage's decision not to release state bonds met Wednesday at the offices of the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) in Augusta.
Speaking on Monday, Norway Town Manager David Holt said the goal was to get the 11 towns that have been affected by the governor's decision together to discuss the issue.
"We're just going to sit down together and talk over the situation and explore the options and agree upon a plan of action, I hope," Holt said.
In mid-June, LePage announced he would not release $40 million in voter-approved state bonds, claiming the state could not afford more debt.
One of the affected bonds provided towns with grants for community redevelopment through the Communities for Maine's Future (CMF) program.
Norway was among 11 towns that won grants of up to $400,000 for downtown revitalization – the grant formed the basis of the project to rehabilitate the Norway Opera House.
Work to refinish five first-floor storefronts was close to going out for bid when the impact of the governor's decision was revealed, leaving Norway, like other towns, in the lurch.
Holt said that all options were on the table for the meeting and the towns would be discussing the full scope of the issue and trying to find solutions.
At least for Holt, this includes probing the signed contracts the towns have with the state for the grants.
"I've never dealt with anything quite like this in my life," Holt said.
"I always thought a signed contract with the state amounted to something, but that was the old days, I guess."
MMA spokesperson Eric Conrad said the association was happy to provide a centrally-located meeting venue for the municipalities, which are spread out across the state.
He said the direction and subject matter of the meeting was entirely up to the attendants, but MMA shared the concerns of the 11 municipalities.
"People were looking forward to [these projects]," he said.
"In many of these cases, local money and staff time has been spent getting them to where they are ... we are looking forward to the projects going forward and now that's been at least temporarily delayed."
Jeff Hewett, the director of Skowhegan's Community and Economic Development Office confirmed Monday that he and Town Manager John Doucette would attend the meeting.
"We've got projects that we have underway," Hewett explained. "We need to be able to move forward if we're going to have any chance of getting the best prices for these projects."
Skowhegan received a $400,000 CMF grant to renovate a downtown parking lot.
"If out of this we find a way we can work the governor to get this addressed then one meeting could easily take care of it," Hewett said, but admitted the possibility was unlikely.
"It doesn't sound like it's going to be an easy process to get this addressed either way," he said.
Speaking on Tuesday, Bath Director of Community Development Justin Poirier confirmed he would attend the meeting but was unsure of what to expect.
Bath received a $70,718 CMF grant to fund improvements on the city's historic Custom's House Building.
"I just was hoping to hear whether they are going to replace the funds ... just so we know definitively whether our project can move forward," Poirier said.
Monmouth Town Manager Curtis Lunt also confirmed Tuesday he would be attending the meeting.
Lunt said that the Governor's decision did not affect Monmouth as severely as other towns – its project to renovate the town's Grange Hall is nearly complete and it has already received $250,000 in reimbursements, he said.
Still, he said he appreciated the dilemma other towns have been put in.
"We're all in the same boat, ultimately," Lunt said. "It's best to row together."
Kristal Flagg, the Livermore Falls Town Manager said she was unable to attend the meeting, but had asked Holt to keep her informed on its outcome.
She said she was still confident the town would receive its $400,000 grant to restore the downtown Lamb Block building.
Other towns that were invited include Unity, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport, Belfast, Rockland and Winthrop.
In the meantime, Holt says Norway will probably move forward with its plan to take out a Bond Anticipation Note (BAN) in order to keep the Opera House project moving forward and avoid losing the $130,000 it has already put into it.
According to minutes from the meeting made available on Thursday, six communities were represented at the meeting.
Reached on Thursday afternoon, Holt said the meeting was enjoyable and all the towns would try and further the discussion in a productive manner.
"Most of us have spent our lives trying to enhance these communities and we don't want this to ... get dragged down somewhere we don't want to be," he said.
Holt said the towns would pursue a future meeting with the governor and would continue to work with selectmen and state representatives on the issue.