AUGUSTA, Maine — Eleven workers at the Houlton office of Maine Revenue Services received layoff notices Wednesday, alerting them that their positions had been eliminated and the office would close as part of mandatory general fund savings requirements included in the recently approved biennial budget.
The Bangor Daily News obtained a copy of one layoff letter, and all 11 layoffs were confirmed by members of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and the Maine State Employees Union, which represents the laid-off workers.
Until Wednesday, the office employed 11 people, but one worker resigned before the layoffs were announced, according to Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
Union officials and some lawmakers decried the sudden closure, saying the move was not what they intended when the Legislature instructed the Office of Policy and Management to find $11.5 million in savings this fiscal year.
“This decision was made without any public input, without the people of Houlton being given the chance to speak out against this cut,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.
The budget directive to the Office of Policy and Management was to find nearly $35 million in savings during the budget biennium — $11.25 million of savings that did not require legislative approval in fiscal year 2014 and $22.5 million in savings that would require a green light from lawmakers in fiscal year 2015.
“We are required under Part F of the recently enacted biennial budget to make structural and operational savings of $33.7 million, including the elimination of up to 100 positions,” said Sawin Millett, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
“Savings realized in fiscal year 2014 have to be identified by Sept. 30, and we at DAFS find ourselves in the position of having to make this difficult decision in order to meet our savings target,” he said.
Smith, Millett’s spokeswoman, said the decision to close the Houlton office was made by Millet and Maine Revenue Services, independently of the Office of Policy and Management and Gov. Paul LePage.
Mandatory savings must be identified by Sept. 30, and the lease on the Houlton office expires in October. This is an area where Maine Revenue Services can save $900,000, Smith said.
Smith said there is no walk-in service provided at the Houlton office, and that the jobs there could be done more efficiently at the main Maine Revenue Services office in Augusta. More importantly, she said, the building being leased in Houlton does not have adequate security to meet Internal Revenue Service standards.
“The security of confidential returns is not sufficient,” she said. “There’s no 24-hour security, no badge readers, no camera system, all of which are required now by IRS.”
Smith said the work done in Aroostook County could be handled by creating five additional positions in Augusta, and that workers in Houlton would be offered those jobs if they relocate.
Joyce Fitzpatrick, R-Houlton, said she was told about the closure Wednesday and had been calling Republican lawmakers and executive branch officials all day Thursday in an effort to prevent the office’s closure.
Fitzpatrick said the office, which has staff in both income and sales tax divisions, is home to employees with more than a decade of experience, who are often called on by Maine Revenue Services workers in Augusta for help.
“I understand we need to go lean and mean here with the government, and meet the budget and all that, but I think this is just low-hanging fruit,” she said. “I’m not convinced this isn’t a viable, working office.”
Chris Quint, executive director of Maine State Employees Association, the union representing state workers, said none of the laid-off workers have yet been offered relocation or the option to apply for any other state jobs.
He said the union was caught off guard by this “dark of night” move because union officials had been assured that any drastic changes as a result of mandatory savings would come in the second half of the biennium, with legislative involvement.
“Layoffs are usually done during the process of making a budget, with the Legislature, and there’s usually some conversation around it,” he said.
Quint said that his union will be present at the Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday, looking for an explanation from Millett. He also said that while there’s no means of recourse in the laid-off employees’ contract, the union plans to take action against the closure.
“It’s our intention to mobilize the community of Houlton to try to fight back,” he said. “This is about mobilizing community support or coming back in January to try to reinstate these jobs.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.