LEWISTON, Maine — Maine Public Broadcasting Network executives are working closely with the governor’s office, the Maine Emergency Management Agency and Efficiency Maine to avoid a shutdown of transmission towers in Calais and Fort Kent.
Jim Dowe, MPBN’s president and CEO, expressed optimism Monday that his ongoing discussions with state officials will bear fruit, but offered no timeline on a decision.
“We’ve still got some work to do to ensure we don’t end up in this same situation again in a year or two,” Dowe said in a statement. “But for now I am hopeful that through combined efforts of the Office of the Governor and the Legislature, we can keep towers in Fort Kent and Calais operating and still balance MPBN’s budget for the year.”
MPBN had announced in December that it would close the radio transmitters in Aroostook and Washington counties as part of an overall cost-cutting measure that also included layoffs and pay reductions. The shutdown was to go into effect on Jan. 15, but Dowe told lawmakers earlier this month that MPBN would delay shut-down of the two remote towers until Feb. 28 in hopes of brokering a deal.
The initial announcement by MPBN to close towers in the most remote parts of Maine drew the ire of lawmakers across the state, notably Sens. John Martin and Kevin Raye, who represent Aroostook County and Washington County, respectively.
“It is profoundly disturbing that MPBN would determine that an appropriate response to those pressures is to abandon certain parts of Maine,” Raye told the Bangor Daily News in December.
Dowe said those towers were selected simply because they serve the smallest audiences among MPBN listeners.
Gov. John Baldacci also expressed concerns about the ramifications of a shutdown, particularly because MPBN stations provide the state’s Emergency Alert System. Although backup carriers exist, a shutdown of MPBN in some areas would compromise the state’s ability to disseminate information in the event of a crisis.
David Farmer, spokesman for the governor, said Monday that he’s encouraged that MPBN is talking with the state.
“When they made these initial decisions, they didn’t contact us,” he said. “The governor has always felt that shutting down those towers was the wrong decision.”
According to Dowe, MPBN was forced to cut costs because of a decrease in state subsidy and a drop in major contributions and corporate support. The closure of radio towers in Fort Kent and Calais, along with the television tower in Calais, would save MPBN $71,000 annually. If that money can be found elsewhere, Dowe said, he will reconsider.
Farmer said that, from the governor’s standpoint, $71,000 is not a lot when it comes to a statewide communications business.
“We think that money can be made up somewhere else,” he said.
That may well be where Efficiency Maine comes in. The program is an arm of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, funded by electricity consumers, that helps state residents and businesses reduce energy costs while improving the environment.
Dowe indicated that Efficiency Maine already has offered ideas on reducing the long-term cost of electricity required to keep MPBN’s towers up and running, although he didn’t say what those potential measures are.