July 19, 2015

Fixing Maine's roads and bridges - By Sen. Bill Diamond

Summer is finally here and with its arrival comes a new round of road construction projects. As a member of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, I know that keeping Maine’s roads and overall transportation network in working order is no easy task. Travelling Mainers and visitors alike depend on the quality and upkeep of our roads, rail, air, and ferry services, and to a large extent our economy depends on them, too.
That’s why I’m happy to announce that this November, Mainers will have a chance to vote on a transportation bond to provide $85 million in additional funding for Maine DOT’s planned infrastructure improvements. Municipalities in our senate district are currently scheduled for multiple construction, maintenance, and paving projects resulting in millions of dollars of needed highway and local road improvements. Local projects include bridge repairs, bike and pedestrian upgrades, new traffic signals, and increasing drainage capacity. This bond funding will go toward already identified priority projects in the Maine DOT three-year work plan.

Statewide, the funding is divided into two major categories: $68 million is allocated for roads and bridges, while $17 million will go toward ports, harbors, marine transportation, aviation, freight and passenger railroads, and bicycle and pedestrian trails.

Maine’s aging roads and bridges have been the focus of ongoing study over the last few years. In 2007, Maine DOT released the first Keeping our Bridges Safe Report which outlined the needs of Maine’s network of more than 2,700 state owned bridges. This report was updated last year and recommended additional funding for Maine to keep up with necessary improvements. The 2014 report notes that while the rate of structurally deficient bridges has dropped both nationally and throughout New England, in Maine the rate of structurally deficient bridges is higher today than it was in 2012. This is a trend that must be reversed and this bond aims to do just that.

Of course, no Maine transportation plan would be complete without addressing other modes of transportation. The $17 million for multimodal facilities and infrastructure will provide funding for the ferries that island communities depend on, as well as Maine’s shipping ports, railways, and airports. Neglecting these modes of transportation for passengers and commerce is simply not an option.

As we drive around on Maine roads this summer, I’m sure we’ll all have the time and opportunity to reflect on the importance of maintaining and improving our transportation network. While waiting in line to get through a construction zone can be an annoyance, the alternative is much worse. I hope that by approving this funding, we can start to reduce the roughly $525 each of us pays in extra vehicle repairs from driving on Maine roads every year.

If you are interested in looking at the complete three-year Maine DOT Work Plan, you can find it online at www.maine.gov/mdot. The website also offers an interactive feature which allows a search for projects by municipality. Please feel free to contact me at diamondhollyd@aol.com or (207) 287-1515 with any feedback or concerns that you may have.

Raymond business owners and residents gathered to discuss economic growth and development - By Michelle Libby

For more than a year Raymond has been looking at changes that could be made to it so people would think of it as a destination and a place to do business. Last year a feasibility study was conducted by the Economic Development Task Force, and they hoped to partner with USM to create an incubator program, which would help develop new products. However, that fell through. 
Last month, the town planned two forums under the direction of Planning Decisions in the hopes of moving toward an economic development strategy. Only one of the forums was held. The other business owners, who planned to attend the first forum, received a phone call from Milan Nevajda from Planning Decisions to be interviewed personally. 

The attendees were a spread of all ages, said Nevajda. They also represented business owners, commercial property owners in and out of the commercial strip, various committees and economic development and even former business owners from the recent past, he said.  

During the feasibility study, ninety percent of business owners said they planned to stay in Raymond, said Danielle Loring, director of development for the town. They also want to grow their businesses in Raymond. 

“There was a lot of energy in the 18th meeting. A lot of passion about what they want to do,” said Loring.
The focus group wanted to see direct impact from what decisions are made. They want to grow and function more effectively. The focus groups were a way to recommend needs and strategies for improving Raymond. 

Planning Decisions collected four pages of data listing strengths and weaknesses and will make specific recommendations to the town, like tracking the vendors and supply chains to connect businesses already connected to ones that need the same services. 

“It’s a lot of material to sift through,” said Nevajda. 

The forum was asked about Internet and Broadband service and if they wanted to expand the infrastructure to see greater speed. However, most of the conversations were about broader topics like policy changes to make doing business in Raymond more friendly, rather than focusing on specific businesses.  

“We are looking for a step by step recipe to help our businesses and to attract and retain businesses going forward,” Loring said. Some of those steps would include training for staff, infrastructure and better business courses. 

One of the suggestions was to create an economic development position to create a direct channel to policy makers and the town staff, said Nevajda. This person would be informed and will talk about what needs to happen, funneling information from the town to business owners and back. 

“Raymond didn’t have a specific person who could lead economic development,” said Nevajda. Raymond wants to “change the mindset that it’s not a pass through to more attractive tourist areas like Naples or the shopping area in Windham. People didn’t see Raymond as a place to stop and take care of business. The goal is to make Raymond more of a destination, more identifiable,” he said. 

Two things suggested that Raymond work on were marketing and awareness, and bricks and mortar buildings. Another big piece was town regulations and how to balance what’s feasible versus what the goals of the town are. 

“We want to change Raymond’s image as a drive through town,” Loring said. Raymond has begun its campaign to brand and create more opportunities with its recent Everyone loves Raymond, ME festival over the Fourth of July. 

Planning Designs will create a report with the feedback for later in the summer. The focus group is part of a larger economic development plan intending to provide Raymond with specific instruction on what public activities and investments can be made to help growth businesses achieve their projected or aspired-to growth, attract new businesses to Raymond that make sense for the community and create an environment that fosters business growth and attracts new businesses to Raymond.

Windham Library to resume Saturday hours - By Elizabeth Richards

Beginning on August 1st, the Windham Public Library will once again have Saturday hours of operation. The new hours for the library will be Monday and Wednesday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The library has been closed on Saturdays since September of 2014, said Library Director Jennifer Alvino. This year, in the town budget process, the library received additional funding for staffing to resume Saturday hours. Alvino said that the budget process was different this year, with Town Manager Tony Plante and the town councilors taking a forward looking view at the priorities, services and the future of the town. “It was a really positive budget process this year,” she said. 

Although patrons have adapted to the library being closed on Saturdays, Alvino said that for some, such as working families, it was much more difficult to find times to visit. “Saturday was their easy time,” she said.  She has often heard visitors express the desire for Saturday hours to resume.

 The library closed on Saturdays for a variety of reasons, including staffing shortages. “A number of years ago, there were staff cut backs, but the number of hours the library was open was not adjusted,” said Alvino. That left the building open with only two people working at times, she said. Another factor in closing on Saturdays was a desire to add more services, such as Minerva, which was a positive addition to library services, but took a lot of hours to implement. Finally, when looking at the schedule at the time, Saturday was the quietest day, Alvino said.  “We’re hoping that once we re-open a lot of people will visit then,” she said.

The staff is excited and ready to welcome people on Saturdays. “Reducing the hours we were open wasn’t something we wanted to do, so we are glad we are going to be back open,” Alvino said.

A bipartisan budget for Maine - By Rep. Mark Bryant

On June 30, the Legislature passed a state budget. It was a great moment of bipartisanship. We came together to avoid a state shutdown and put forward a strong budget for Maine. 
This budget was the result of weeks of public hearings, months of negotiation and bipartisan compromise. 

The nature of compromise is that no one gets everything they want. There are parts of the deal that I am not pleased with, but overall it is a fair budget and it moves us in the right direction. 

Even though this was a budget that both Democrats and Republicans agreed upon, the governor chose to veto it. This could have had a huge negative impact – not just in Augusta, but across the state. It would have cut off payment to hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Businesses would be forced to close their doors, unable to get the licenses and permits they need to operate. Thousands of public employees would be put out of work. State parks would be closed at the height of tourist season. A state shutdown would have had a damaging and lasting impact on our economy. 

Thankfully, this did not happen. Despite his efforts to throw us off course, legislators held firm and voted to override the governor’s veto.

I am proud of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for being responsible and respectful of our duty to serve Maine people. 

There are several good things in this budget, especially the tax relief that is largely targeted towards middle-class families. There are also several components of the budget that are especially good for Windham, including the preservation of Municipal Revenue Sharing, which will fund local police, fire and public works. Property taxpayers will benefit from the doubling of the Homestead Exemption to $20,000 and the protection of the mortgage deduction in the state tax code. Military pensions will now be exempt from the income tax.  

When all is said and done, Maine's tax code will become more progressive than under current law.  
The compromise also puts more resources towards education, which is essential to improving our economy in the long range. We increased K to 12 education funding by $80 million, which will not only help our students but will also take some pressure off property taxpayers – another win for Windham.
There will be an additional $10 million put towards scholarships and work study for college students. Funding will be increased for community colleges, which are important places to get a quality education and a job that pays a decent wage. 

The compromise budget reforms welfare by creating a tiered system that alleviates the impact of the welfare cliff – the sharp drop-off in benefits that takes place as recipients work more and their income increases. The goal is for people in poverty to move into sustainable employment.  

The budget also protects critical services like the Drugs for the Elderly and Medicare Savings programs. It also provides a modest raise for direct-care workers who care for seniors and the disabled, which will allow more seniors to stay in their homes longer as they age. 

These are just some highlights. It was forged in compromise through a process that was fair and balanced. I am proud that we were able to stand up for students, workers and middle-class families.
As always, please feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions. You can reach me at mark.bryant@legislature.maine.gov.

Local school receives donation from Hannaford - By Michelle Libby

The Windham Hannaford Supermarket recently presented Windham Primary School with $1,000 through the Hannaford Helps Schools program on Tuesday.  
Store manager Doug Richard presented principal Kyle Rhoads with a check to be added to the $483 collected from “school dollars”. 

“Typically the money is used for field trips for the kids who can’t afford them, or supplies we’re not able to order or to send teachers to conferences that can’t be funded though the school system,” said Rhoads. “This could help any of our kids, really. It could be playground equipment.” 

Overall, Hannaford Supermarkets has distributed checks for more than $400,000 to k to 12 schools in New England and New York through the Hannaford Helps Schools program in 2015. Customers triggered the donations by purchasing eligible products.

“The whole community is really supportive of our school,” said Rhoads. 

In its 15th year, Hannaford Helps Schools raised $237,235 for 1,420 schools. In the Windham area, schools were awarded checks totaling $1,617, not including the $1,000 check for WPS. 

“[The money] definitely goes to good use. That’s a lot of money every year,” said Richard. 

Under the program, customers received three “school dollars” – equivalent to cash – for every four participating products purchased. This year’s program involves more than 26 brand partners and 780 products, including products from Procter & Gamble, Tropicana, Unilever, General