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LePage Administration Accused of Playing Favorites with Selective Release of Grants
08/03/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

For the past two weeks, Democrats have been prodding the LePage administration to release some voter approved community development bonds for 11 Maine communities or help the towns achieve other sources of financing. When the administration assisted five communities this week, Democrats accused the governor of playing favorites. The administration said that's a distortion of the facts.

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When Gov. Paul LePage decided to sit on a $3.5 million community development block grant earlier this year, he said it was because the state's financial situation was too precarious to take on more borrowing. Instead, he promised to obtain bonds for the project before a 2015 borrowing deadline and he urged the 11 communities with projects in the pipeline to seek other forms of bridge financing in the interim. So when five communities recently received help from the administration to achieve that financing, some Democratic leaders speculated that the administration was picking and choosing who it wanted to help.

"That's not at all correct, the administration has maintained its message on this and the governor has been consistent in saying that he supports communities in finding alternative funding options to give them the gap financing that they need," said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for the governor.

She said nothing has changed on the community development block grant issue since last month when LePage urged communities to find creative, short-term financing. Since then, the governor has given written assurances to Livermore Falls and Norway that the state would seek a bond for their projects on or before 2015. The administration has also assisted Monmouth, Eastport and Dover-Foxcroft to secure alternate funding for their projects. Democratic State Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan said that's great for those communities. But he has yet to hear anything about the money that's needed for the community development block grant that his town was awarded. He said representatives from Skowhegan are still waiting to hear from the governor or the Department of Economic and Community Development that's overseeing the grant process.

"For me what I'm looking for going forward is that this process is open and objective and at the end of the day this process and these bonds, whether or not these communities get funded or not, I want to see that it passes the straight face test," McCabe said. "I don't want to see that this comes down to an issue of pay to play. I'm hope that at the end of the day this will work itself out."

Adrienne Bennett said the administration is offering assistance to the remaining six communities with projects in the works.

"We are willing and ready to participate with these towns in exploring other options for them," Bennett said. "Because that's what we're here for, we're here to help those who need the help right now. They're our customers."

The administration has warned Democrats against circulating quote "misinformation" about LePage's position on the bonds. Democrats responded saying the governor should start helping to create jobs in the local towns where he froze economic development funds. Bennett repeated the governor's position that the state is carrying too much debt at about $100 million dollars in bond payments annually.

"That's the threshold for the governor and he's not willing to go past that and as soon as we can reign in some of that spending and get it down, he will look at where we are with our bonds and the sale of bonds," Bennett said.

While LePage has the authority to delay issuing the bonds that were approved by the voters in 2010, those close to the process say they've rarely, if ever, seen a governor unilaterally seek such a delay. Geoff Herman is director of state and federal relations at the Maine Municipal Association.

"My experience is almost the opposite, that is to say that when the bonds are approved by the voters there's a quick collaborativ effort, an efficient collaborative effort between the participating municipalities and DECD and every effort is made to move the projects along," said Herman. "So the potential delay and stalling and uncertainty created by these decisions is new to me."

Democrats continue to maintain that whatever the LePage administration has done to assist the borrowing needs of five communities, he should do for all of the towns that were approved for funding.

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