June 25, 2018
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LePage’s game of chicken hurting Millinocket schools

By Herb Clark, Special to the BDN

The governor of a state should never blackmail the people of one small town. But that’s exactly what Gov. Paul LePage is doing to my town of Millinocket. It has become a high-stakes game of chicken that must end.

Last year, the state agreed to acquire the Dolby landfill as part of an effort to revive two closed mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket. For those of us who live here, we see first-hand how the landfill is a liability. Without state intervention, our towns would have had very difficult time finding a new buyer for the mills.

To his credit, Gov. LePage did the right thing by the people of our towns. His administration agreed to purchase the landfill, giving us a real shot at new economic development. It was a difficult choice. But bringing good jobs back to this region was critical — and it was the right role for the state.

Now all of that goodwill — and promise of economic development — is in jeopardy.

As part of the deal for the state to purchase the landfill, the two towns agreed to make a one-time $50,000 payment to the state and to offer in-kind services to maintain the landfill, while the state would contribute $150,000 per year.

The governor says the town agreed to make the payments each year. We disagree.

Now, he’s withholding $216,000 in economic aid slated for Millinocket schools. Without that money, our schools will face tough choices. We could lose our teachers and then our accreditation.

The governor’s high-stakes game of chicken comes at the expense of our schoolchildren. Holding education hostage in the hopes of getting our town to cough up money we don’t have — and never promised — won’t help any. We should be working toward a solution and the governor should release Millinocket’s money.

Some say it’s a misunderstanding over a handshake agreement; others have had harsher words. We can play the blame game, but that’s not going to solve any problems or put anybody back to work.

The fact is the landfill and the school funding are two completely separate issues. Withholding the money is illegal. The money is supposed to be given to municipalities that suffer severe tax valuation losses, such as those caused by the devaluation of the two towns’ paper mills. The devaluation and the state assumption of ownership of the landfill last spring were key to the sale of the two mills and the restart of the East Millinocket mill, which restored hundreds of jobs.

After everything the town of Millinocket has been through, and after the governor was instrumental in negotiating the purchase of the mills, we never expected to be thrown over a barrel by Augusta.

What’s happening to us is simply wrong. All of the cities and towns in our state should take notice and be warned.

This may only be happening in Millinocket now, but who can guarantee it won’t happen in any other small town in our state? We depend on the state and our residents pay their fair share in taxes to Augusta.

I’m working with local officials to find another avenue of funding. I sponsored a bill that would provide $250,000 starting July 1 for the operation of the landfill. The bill passed its first legislative hurdle last month, receiving bipartisan support from both the Senate and the House. Now we need the Appropriations Committee to approve the funding when the Legislature is scheduled to reconvene in May.

If the governor wants to restore the goodwill he first gained from helping to save the mills, he can begin to do that by supporting this bill.

For the people of Millinocket and East Millinocket, let’s just hope he doesn’t up the ante with a veto.

Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, represents District 10 in the Maine House of Representatives.

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