AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that he is disappointed with the owners of the Old Town Fuel & Fiber mill in Old Town for closing the operation without first asking the state for help.
“The thing that is so upsetting about this is they never gave the state any warning,” said LePage in an interview with the BDN on Thursday afternoon. “They never told us in any way. They just up and left in the cover of darkness, and I’m very offended by that.”
LePage said he has ordered his administration to explore the circumstances under which the company shut down, including whether furloughing its workers — instead of laying them off — is an attempt to avoid paying severance benefits, which is required under Maine law when a company closes.
“I’ve asked the lawyers to take a look at the severance laws because I think we’re being handed a little bit of a semantics issue here,” said LePage. “They’re calling it a furlough. If you’re saying you’re furloughing indefinitely, then that is a closure to me. … Closure means you’re required to pay severance.”
LePage also criticized the company for closing just weeks before the start of a new school year, when many Maine families are scrambling to purchase school supplies and clothing.
He also questioned the financial premises company officials cited in trying to explain the shutdown.
“I just don’t think it’s right what they’re doing,” said LePage. “If it’s bankruptcy, it’s a different ballgame. If you’re just closing because you’re tired of losing money, why didn’t you call us? Let’s sit down and put our heads together and see if we can help in some way.”
LePage also spoke at length about his opinion that the closure could have been avoided if the state’s elected leaders had taken steps years ago to lower energy costs, which he said are the top impediment to bringing businesses to Maine and creating jobs.
“For four years I’ve said that unless we get our act together with energy, this is going to continue to happen,” said LePage. “Our energy costs are out of control.”
LePage said he saw unfair international trade agreements and lower-cost pulp from other countries, which have been cited by others as a major reason for the closure in Old Town, as a contributing factor but far less impactful than the energy issue.
He also reiterated his often-stated opinion that if Maine were a right-to-work state, which means it would be illegal for employers to require workers to pay union dues, it would be better off economically.