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DOT downplays possible job cuts

By George Chappell

AUGUSTA, Maine — Possible budget cuts leading to layoffs in the state Department of Transportation will not occur this fiscal year, the transportation commissioner said Thursday.

“This new budget is a proposal, and the final decision won’t be made until next June, so we’ve still got a long ways to go,” Transportation Commissioner David Cole told the Bangor Daily News in a telephone interview.

He said the proposed job cuts people have been hearing about recently are tied to the state highway budget for the next two-year period, beginning July 1, 2009.

“The key to our budget process has been to try to focus on maintaining core services, like plowing, construction and repairing roads and bridges,” said Cole, adding that there will be no loss of those services this winter.

Gov. John Baldacci has called for a 10 percent budget reduction of $39 million from DOT’s spending package for 2009-2011, said department spokesman Mark Latti.

“The governor has proposed cutting back 10 percent of the budget, freezing expenditures and consolidating services in the department,” Latti said.

In the DOT plan, the department would eliminate 147 positions, of which 103 are vacant, he said. People in the department actually fill another 44 jobs targeted for the chopping block.

“It’s a little different this time around because of the economic conditions,” Cole said. “Nobody likes the idea of having to cut, but the times demand it.”

The department anticipated the cuts awhile back and began planning by not filling certain positions “to cushion the blow.”

Also, 23 percent of the potential layoffs are salaried positions with DOT, but they represent only 5 percent of the total DOT work force, he said.

Cole said he could not confirm a charge that many of the targeted layoffs are workers older than age 50, who would be retiring anyway.

“It will include some in that category, only because we are an aging work force,” he said.

No one has received a pink slip, but employees did receive a letter explaining the proposal, he added.

Another area of considered cuts is the closing of the rest areas on Interstate 95.

The DOT shut down one rest area on I-95 just north of Augusta a few years ago, Cole said.

“We shut off the road and leveled the facility,” he said.

“We may choose to mothball some facilities and lock them up,” he said. “It will depend on which ones.”

“We value the traveling public and we value the tourists,” he said. “But choices have to be made, and we have to protect what’s vital.

“These rest areas were put on the interstate back at a time when it was new, but other options have emerged,” he said. At nearly every exit drivers have facilities open 24 hours a day at gas stations and convenience stores, he said.

Most of the service areas are not staffed, except for the few with visitors centers such as Hampden’s, Cole said.

“Certainly when we have to set priorities, this is one area we are looking at,” he said of rest areas.

The DOT spends $2 million a year on Interstate 95 rest areas.

The state also is looking at rest areas just off I-95.

“We have closed rest areas on the secondary roads,” Cole said. “We felt they were no longer needed and were redundant to private facilities available.”

One other area of savings is the purchase of trucks.

“Our proposal will save $4 million in truck purchases,” he said.

“We reviewed our truck maintenance, and we were able to eliminate the need for a number of trucks,” he said.

Again, Cole stressed that the proposed cuts would occur in the next biennial budget on July 1, 2009.

“This is preliminary and has a long ways to go,” Cole said.

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