May 10, 2013

LePage reverses course; will send funds to Lewiston victims

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – A day after legislative leaders voted to send $30,000 from their own budget to assist Lewiston residents displaced by three major fires, Gov. Paul LePage said he plans to match that amount.

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage, left, and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, center, look up at two burned-out apartment buildings on Bartlett Street in Lewiston on Tuesday.

The Associated Press

The announcement brings the total of state funds pledged for assistance to $60,000 so far, after the string of blazes displaced nearly 200 residents and destroyed nearly 80 apartments in an eight-day span.

“We’re still working out the details, but the governor is trying to figure out the best way to get those funds to Lewiston,” Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, said Friday.

The move is a reversal of LePage’s stance Tuesday, when, during a visit to the sites of the fires, he was asked whether he would tap any discretionary funds to assist the city where he grew up.

His response was, “What discretionary funding? If there’s discretionary funding – I’ve been here more than two years and I haven’t found any.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett explained at the time that the governor was distinguishing between discretionary money and the contingency account, which has about $250,000. When he was asked about it, he thought the contingency fund was depleted. Bennett said at the time that the governor didn’t plan to use that account for the Lewiston fire victims, a decision that drew criticism from some lawmakers.

On Friday, Steele said the governor’s contribution will be pulled from his contingency fund, matching $30,000 approved Thursday by the Legislative Council, which is made up of Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

“Something that is getting lost is that the state did jump into action, so to say that the governor hasn’t done anything is inaccurate,” Steele said.

Steele said it had not been decided yet where the $30,000 from the governor will go. The Legislature’s $30,000 will go to the city of Lewiston for disbursement to families to help them pay security deposits on new apartments and, in some cases, first month’s rent.

The news was welcome at the Androscoggin Bank Collisee, the impromptu shelter for the mostly Somali immigrants who were displaced by the second blaze on May 3, which destroyed four structures on Pierce Street. About 29 people were still staying at the shelter, according to the Red Cross.

Fatuma Hussein of the United Somali Women of Maine, who spent the day on the phone with landlords and state housing inspectors to help some of the remaining refugees find apartments, said that although housing remains the biggest concern, the victims will continue to need furniture, beds, linens, and support through the transition.

“There is hope for these families,” Hussein said, lauding the aid organizations who have come together. “There’s also a lot of gratitude,” she said.

Sue Charron, Lewiston Director of Social Services, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday granted a waiver to the Somali refugees who were displaced by the fire on Pierce Street, whose subsidized housing status was tied to the buildings that burned, Charron said. The waiver from HUD allows the tenants to bring the subsidy with them to a new apartment until the owner of the previous complex rebuilds.

Charron said she expects most of the displaced residents to find new housing by the end of last week.

“It’s just amazing how people have worked so well together,” Charron said, rattling off a laundry list of state and nonprofit grounds that have lined up to help.

Since the fires, the city’s effort to identify, condemn and repossess decrepit buildings has ramped up, with Lewiston public safety and inspection personnel identifying a 30-block area that contains the most glaring issues. The city has so far issued 24 temporary passes to the city dump that waives tipping fees, an incentive for tenants and landlords to tidy up unsafe and unattractive properties.

Also on Friday, the Department of Corrections said it would send prison work crews to Lewiston to help clean up debris and flammable material in vacant lots. The prison crews would not be at the scenes of the fires, according to Maine Correctional Center Supt. Scott Burnheimer.

Firefighters on Friday also began a biannual inspection process of the dozens of vacant and condemned properties that dot the densely built neighborhood.

Lieutenant James Pelletier of the Lewiston Fire Department visited several of the vacant homes, wielding a clipboard and checklist, inspecting the windows and doors while other firefighters affixed red and white placards that mean the buildings are unsafe for firefighters to enter during a fire.

The fire department’s proactive inspection regimen helps identify unsecured buildings that could be easy prey for copper thieves, drug users, or vagrants looking for a place to stay, said code enforcement officer and Police Corporal Jeff Baril, who estimated that copper theft is the quickest catalyst in a property’s demise.

But amidst the dirt lots and blighted buildings, there were rays of optimism and renewal as well.

Klara Tammany, director at the Center for Wisdom’s Women, was labeling popsicle sticks to mark where other volunteers planted sunflower seeds in the now-vacant lot at the site of the first fire on Blake Street. Unwilling to take over the property with blossoms without permission, the rebel gardeners planted the donated seeds at the edge of the property.

“My dream was to seed this with a sunflower field, and have a huge sign of hope at the end of the summer,” said Tammany. “We’re hoping it will make somebody smile.”

-- Staff writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303, or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com.

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