BELFAST, Maine — At least some of the communities affected last summer when Gov. Paul LePage froze their part of a $25 million bond learned this week that the funds have been released at last.
The governor had withheld funding on a total of $200 million in voter-approved construction bonds until the state enacted a bill to pay off hospital debt, press secretary Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday. When that bill was signed into law in June, the frozen bonds could start to be released, she said.
The governor’s controversial decision to refuse to release the voter-approved bond money caused one state legislator to say that LePage was holding his community hostage.
“The governor is ignoring the will of the people and holding our local economy hostage,” Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said last summer.
In response, LePage said that he was halting the bonds in order to better Maine’s financial position and possibly elevate the state’s credit rating.
Doug Ray, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said Wednesday that the order to release the $3.5 million for the Communities for Maine’s Future grants was signed at the beginning of August. In addition to Skowhegan, Belfast, Bath, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport, Livermore Falls, Monmouth, Norway, Rockland, Unity and Winthrop all had won the competitive grants, which require communities to provide a 100 percent match.
In Belfast, City Planner Wayne Marshall learned Tuesday that the city would finally get its $400,000 grant, which was earmarked to help construct the long-planned-for Harbor Walk project. When officials found out last summer that the governor was withholding the grants for two years, it was a shock, he said.
“We were pretty much ready to go,” Marshall said Wednesday. “It really made you take a couple steps back and go, ‘wow.’ It was just so unexpected and nothing which I’d really experienced before.”
The affected communities scrambled last year to find alternative funding or to downsize or delay their projects. Bath, which won a $70,000 grant to restore windows at the Customs House Building, chose to downsize. Andrew Deci, the Bath director of planning and development, said Wednesday that the city had scaled-down its project and has restored 3/4 of the windows in the building.
“We’re not sure now what our timeline is, or how aggressive we’ll be about using our funds,” he said.
In Belfast, the city council voted to borrow money to complete the project on time, and the $1.4 million project should be completed by the end of October, Marshall said.
“The delay is something that clearly caused the city to retrench a bit on how it was approaching the project,” he said. “It forced the council to use short-term borrowing to make it go forward. We took a pause there.”