AUGUSTA, Maine — A delegation of officials and one laid-off worker roamed the halls of the State House on Thursday, speaking with lawmakers before meeting with a top staffer for Gov. Paul LePage in an effort to reverse the closure of a state office in Houlton.
The decision to close the office, a satellite location for Maine Revenue Services, was made by Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett earlier in August. It resulted in the layoff of 12 workers at the office. Another two positions there were vacant.
Several lawmakers, mostly Democrats and legislators from Aroostook County, as well as the state employees union, have bemoaned the decision to close the office. They say The County cannot afford to lose 12 good-paying jobs, and have defended the efficacy and revenue-creating work done by the Houlton employees.
Millett has said the closure was part of a budget requirement to find $11.5 million in savings this fiscal year, and that closing the Houlton office will save $900,000.
The group from Houlton on Thursday included Nancy Ketch, a 14-year veteran of the branch who was laid off; Houlton City Manager Gene Conlogue; John McLaughlin, executive director of Southern Aroostook Development Corp.; Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Union; Rep. Joyce Fitzpatrick, R-Houlton; and Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton.
“We don’t feel like it was a wasted trip,” Ketch said. “We got to talk to a lot of people and perhaps open some eyes.”
The group came to Augusta during a special legislative session, one day after opponents of the office closure were unable to gather the political muscle necessary to introduce and pass a bill by Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would have reversed the decision.
The group met first with Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, as it tried to find any way to get Jackson’s bill before lawmakers. Ultimately it was unsuccessful.
“I told them, ‘If you can get the administration and my Republican colleagues on board, we’re ready to go,’” Alfond said. “These folks are incredibly disappointed.”
The group also sought face time with LePage but were unable to see the governor. However, they did meet with LePage’s chief of staff, John McGough.
“It was a very good meeting,” Conlogue said. “We suggested he ask the governor to authorize a review. I think he’s going to at least give it some thought.”
The group is seeking a review because members don’t believe the $900,000 savings estimate, Conlogue said. The employees in Houlton worked in auditing, a revenue stream for state coffers. The Maine State Employee Union has claimed that for every dollar spent in Houlton, the state saw $8 in return. Alfond echoed that assessment Thursday.
The LePage administration has defended its right to close the Houlton office as a cost-saving measure required by the budget. LePage also pledged better communication on Wednesday, saying his administration would alert lawmakers if any plans to meet budget needs involved layoffs.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett on Thursday said the meeting between McGough and the Houlton group was “positive” but it’s unlikely that the decision to close the branch will be reversed.
“It was a productive meeting, and we’re committed to ensuring [the laid-off workers] have the resources they need for a successful transition,” she said.
MSEA had filed a lawsuit in Caribou District Court seeking an injunction to prevent the closure of the Houlton office, but pulled the lawsuit at the advice of its legal counsel, Rivard said. The state has said publicly that five new jobs in Augusta will be offered to the laid-off Houlton workers, but Rivard said Friday that no offers had yet been made.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.