LEWISTON — While reviewing fire damage Tuesday in his hometown, Gov. Paul LePage dismissed a suggestion that he had “discretionary” funds he could tap to help the more than 200 residents who have been displaced by three major blazes in the past 10 days.
“What discretionary funding?” he said. “If there’s discretionary funding — I’ve been there more than two years and I haven’t found any.”
However, the governor does have a contingency account, which has a balance of about $250,000. Legislative leaders urged him to use the fund to provide help to those left homeless by the Lewiston fires.
LePage has used the account in the past to provide additional funding for legal aid for the poor, for an early childhood obesity prevention program and for hiring lawyers to defend the state’s redistricting plan, among other purposes. Earlier this year, he tapped the account to provide $18,000 for an electronic monitoring system for domestic-violence offenders.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett later said that the governor was distinguishing between discretionary money and the contingency account and when he was asked about it, he thought the contingency fund was depleted. Bennett said the governor doesn’t plan to use that account for the Lewiston fire victims.
“It’s a dire situation,” Bennett said of the three fires that have left more than 200 people homeless, but “we don’t necessarily see this as a state of emergency.”
LePage spent about a half hour Wednesday morning in Lewiston. He drove past the site of one of the fires, then spent about 15 minutes on Bartlett Street, discussing the fires with city officials in front of two vacant buildings that had burned Monday.
Dozens of apartments have been destroyed in the three fires that started April 29.
Police have arrested Brody Covey, a 12-year-old, on arson charges in the first fire on April 29. They also have arrested another 12-year-old on arson charges in the second fire but say they believe the cases are separate. They have not released the second boy’s name. Both boys face arraignment hearings May 13.
One local legislator criticized LePage for declining to provide help from the contingency account.
“He does have the money,” said state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who also noted that LePage has the authority to shift other funds in the state budget to provide up to $750,000 more for contingencies.
“There’s an enormous need,” Rotundo said. “This is what contingency funds are for.”
LePage suggested that instead of asking him about discretionary funds, the Legislature should come up with some money on its own to help.
LePage noted that the Legislature’s account for its own operations usually runs a surplus, often because of staff turnover.
Sometimes that money is poured back into the general fund at the end of the fiscal year, or it’s used for legislative projects, such as new copper for the State House dome and upgraded phones for the House and Senate, said David Boulter, the executive director of Maine Legislative Council.
Boulter said about $1.2 million of this year’s carryover balance, expected to be about $4 million, will be used to pay for the copper dome. He said the council, made up of Legislative leadership, can decide on its own how to spend the money and doesn’t need the governor’s signature.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who chairs the council, said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that the council will consider setting aside money for Lewiston when it next meets at the end of the month, but he urged LePage to act sooner.
“He can do that today by releasing the emergency funds that are needed” in Lewiston, he said.
Bennett said the administration has reacted quickly to the fires, noting that it helped set up a housing fair to be held Wednesday for landlords, displaced tenants and state and local officials to help find new apartments for the fire victims.
She also said the state is trying to replace quickly any identification cards and food stamp cards that tenants might have lost. Also, the administration is exploring whether it can provide more food stamps to displaced residents who are nearing the end of their eligibility and to people who may have lost cash in the fires, on a one-time basis.
She said the Lewiston office of the Department of Health and Human Services assisted about 240 people who stopped in on Monday alone.
Ed Barrett, the Lewiston city administrator, said city residents and businesses have been especially helpful to the fire victims, donating volunteer time and goods, including clothing to those who lost everything in their apartments. He said one local business even offered a bulldozer to knock down buildings gutted by the fire.
LePage spent little time in his hometown Tuesday, and Rotundo said she while she appreciated his visit, she wished he had spent some time with residents directly affected by the fires. LePage did not meet with the displaced residents during his visit.
LePage gave an indication of why he might have left his hometown relatively quickly when he was asked if he was happy to be back in Lewiston, where he ran away from an abusive father at 11 and spent two years homeless.
“It brings back a lot of bad memories,” he said.
However, Bennett said that on his way out of town, LePage’s spirits were lifted by a stop at a favorite bakery.
“It makes him smile,” she said of the bakery. It’s “a place that he really, really loves.”