Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles examining the bond questions that will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot in Maine. Question 2 reads: Do you favor an $8,000,000 bond issue to support Maine agriculture, facilitate economic growth in natural resources-based industries and monitor human health threats related to ticks, mosquitoes and bedbugs through the creation of an animal and plant disease and insect control laboratory administered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service?
ORONO, Maine — Just weeks after she joined the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension as director of the animal health laboratory in 2008, Anne Lichtenwalner got a call from a cattle farmer.
The man on the phone was frantic. His animals were getting sick and dying, and he needed help. He said he had a cow that died, and he wanted to bring it to the lab for testing to find out what killed it and the others.
This appeared to be a reasonable task for the lab, which frequently works with farmers and the state to test domestic and wild animals in order to monitor their health.
Lichtenwalner told the farmer to bring in the dead cow, but she did not anticipate the difficulty that ensued when he showed up at Hitchner Hall, located at the middle of the Orono campus, with a 700-pound carcass in the back of his pickup truck.
Lichtenwalner and several others worked together to roll the cow onto its back, place it on a gurney and wheel it through the narrow door to the lab. She was able to perform a necropsy on the cow on the floor of the lab, then she needed to cut up the carcass into 50-pound pieces to dispose of it.
That is just one of the stories scientists at UMaine’s Cooperative Extension tell when explaining why they are asking voters to approve an $8 million bond for animal and plant diagnostic services this November.
The bond, Question 2 on the ballot, would allow UMaine’s Cooperative Extension to build a new facility on UMaine’s campus that would house labs for the monitoring and testing of insects and pests that plague domestic and wild plants and animals in Maine.
A bill proposing the bond was sponsored by Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport. Voters turned down a similar proposal in 2012, which would have awarded UMaine $7.8 million to build the new facility.
“The informal feedback we got was the public did not have a clear understanding of what they were voting for,” John Rebar, executive director of the cooperative extension, said.
This year, the wording on the ballot was changed, an informational website was created, and Rebar has been traveling across the state to educate groups about what the money would be used for.
The question for voters will be whether they think this new facility is worth their investment.
“Bonds are a go-to solution for a number of issues,” according to Matt Gagnon, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative research organization. “It’s something that I think we should get away from.”
This election season, voters will be asked to approve $50 million worth of bonds for small businesses, clean water, medical research facilities and the marine industry.
“We oppose the increase of debt to the public, particularly at a time where budgets are so tight,” Gagnon said, adding that as a UMaine graduate, he’d love to see the campus grow, but he could not justify this bond.
If approved, the animal health laboratory headed by Lichtenwalner and the facility that researches plants and insects would be housed at a new facility, which would be located somewhere on campus but on the outskirts, said Rep. James Dill, D-Orono, who is a pest management specialist at UMaine’s Cooperative Extension.
Lichtenwalner said a bigger building is essential to serve the growing livestock population in Maine. The new facility would have the capacity to safely and more cheaply dispose of animal carcasses after they’ve been tested. Under current conditions, UMaine’s Cooperative Extension freezes the animal remains, then farmers need to pay 70 cents per pound to an outside company that removes them.
She and Dill, whose facility researches ticks, bedbugs, mosquitoes and other pests and invasive species, said their capacity to serve Maine farms and wildlife would be greater if they could safely secure their facilities to keep diseases and insects from escaping.
“Right now, we can tell you what things are,” Rebar said. “But we can’t thoroughly investigate them because we don’t have the biosecure lab.”
Dill said there is no laboratory in Maine that can test whether a tick has Lyme disease, so ticks are sent out of state for testing. It can take three to eight weeks for those who were bitten to get the results.
Dill’s story about why he needs the new facility happened more recently.
In July, a young father came into UMaine’s Cooperative Extension with an engorged deer tick he pulled out from behind the ear of his 7-day-old baby. He wanted the tick tested for Lyme disease, but Dill had to tell him to take the insect elsewhere.
If the new facility is approved, Dill would be able to determine whether affected people, such as the baby, need to be treated for the disease.
Better equipment also would allow Dill and other researchers to do more extensive monitoring of mosquito-borne diseases and the spotted wing drosophila, a type of fly that came to Maine in 2011 and cost the blueberry industry nearly $4 million in 2012, according to Dill.
“Everything we learn we’re going to use in educational outreach,” Rebar said.
That applies to UMaine students, who work at UMaine’s Cooperative Extension, and Mainers who are affected by the pests and diseases.