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Gov. Lepage Tours Fire Damage in Lewiston
05/07/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Governor Paul LePage got a first-hand look at some of the damage caused by a rash of fires near Lewiston's downtown over the past week that have destroyed at least eight apartment buildings and left dozens of people homeless. State and local agencies are working to get housing and other assistance to fire victims as quickly as possible. But some would like the state to do more.

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Governor LePage Tours Fire Damage Listen
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Governor Paul LePage Tours Fire Damage in Lewiston

During a tour of the Bartlett Street fires that destroyed two, vacant multi-story apartment buildings Governor LePage pledged to do whatever he can do to help. He said both the Department of Health and Human Services and Maine State Housing are already working to provide additional welfare benefits for victims, find them housing and, in the case of refugee families, help replace proof of citizenship documents that were lost in the fires.

"And Mary and I, Commissioner Mayhew and I are meeting later this afternoon to see what is available," LePage said. "So, I can quote it right now. I don't know everything. But I know everybody's working on it."

City officials, who briefed the governor on the damage caused by the three fires, said they're still adding up the costs of overtime by police and firefighters, of the seven million gallons of water used to douse the flames and of property losses currently estimated at more than two million dollars. They said they understand state resources are tight and are grateful for whatever can be made available. But Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo, co-chair of the Legislature's Appropriation's Committee, would like the governor to provide more aid. She and other members of the Lewiston delegation have written a letter asking him to use discretionary funding to help nearly 200 fire victims.

"We're also asking him to mobilize the various departments within the state so that any resources that they can redirect here to Lewiston can be done," said Rotundo.

She said Maine statute Title V allows the Governor to allocate $350,000 for emergency use. Section 1507 states that "the Governor shall determine the necessity for such allocations upon consultation with the State Budget Officer.

"What discretionary funding?" LePage asked. "If there's discretionary funding, I've been there a little over two years, I haven't found any. If you want discretionary funding I think we ought to talk to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House 'cause they have carry-forward monies year after year after year so I will be going back to them today and asking them if they have funds they can release."

The governor's spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, later clarified that about $18,000 in discretionary funding has been spent on electronic monitoring in domestic violence cases. The balance, $284,000, may have to be used on indigent legal services. Bennett points out that Legislative leaders also have a contingency fund that contains several million dollars.

"Speaker Eves does not want to see the victims of the Lewiston fire become a political football," said Jodi Quintero. She is the press secretary for Maine House Speaker Mark Eves. She said her boss thinks it's important for everyone to help out.

"And we're committed to doing that," said Quintero. "It should not be a political issue."

But that appears to be the direction it is headed. Quintero said any money from the Legislature would have to be approved by the Legislative Council which doesn't meet again until the end of May. She points out that not only are the governor's funds are available immediately but she said state statute gives him the ability to ask for up to $700,000. Exactly what the dollar need will be for victims remains unclear. On Wednesday, a housing fair will be held at the DHHS offices in Lewiston to help displaced residents try to find permanent places to live. At least a dozen landlords are expected to attend.


Photo by Susan Sharon.

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