May 10, 2013

Bipartisan group OKs emergency aid for Lewiston victims

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – A bipartisan group of legislators approved $30,000 in emergency funding Thursday for the more than 200 residents who were displaced by three fires that devastated downtown Lewiston within eight days.

click image to enlarge

The resulting scene after a fire at Bartlett and Pierce Streets in Lewiston, which began Friday night May 3, 2013. A bipartisan group of legislators approved $30,000 in emergency funding Thursday for the more than 200 residents who were displaced by three fires that devastated downtown Lewiston within eight days.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Kheyko Jama and Rukiya Muhumed fill out housing forms during a housing fair in Lewiston on Wednesday. Jama, who lived at 149 Bartlett St., and Muhumed, who lived at 114 Pierce Str., were displaced in recent fires that ravaged downtown Lewiston.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The unanimous vote by the Legislative Council will allow the city to begin disbursing funds to families in the coming days to help them pay security deposits on new apartments and, in some cases, first month's rent.

Democrats and Republicans joined in the effort and swiftly approved the spending, which was drawn from the Legislature's operating budget.

On Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage said he did not plan to tap a state contingency account to help displaced Lewiston residents. Legislators urged the governor to use the account, which now holds about $250,000.

LePage's office did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, submitted the funding request along with Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. Rotundo said the $30,000 will not solve all of the displaced residents' problems but it's a key first step to helping them regain normalcy.

"It's enough to meet the immediate crisis," said Rotundo, who expressed frustration with the governor's inaction. "He could get these funds out the door immediately. That's really why we have that contingency fund available for him."

Republicans joined Democrats in approving the funds, with House Republican leader Ken Fredette of Newport expressing his support for the measure.

"I'm glad that there seems to be consensus on where the money should come from," Fredette said in a news release before the meeting Thursday afternoon. "A disaster area should never be turned into a political war zone. The people of Lewiston need this money more than the Legislature does and I hope it will be of some assistance to them in their time of need."

Nearly 80 apartments were destroyed by the three fires, the first of which claimed three buildings April 29. One of the structures, a nine-unit apartment building, had been condemned since March 19 but was still mostly occupied, raising concern about the city's housing stock.

Authorities said the first two fires, on April 29 and May 3, were unrelated and were set separately by 12-year-old boys. Each boy is scheduled to be arraigned Monday on multiple counts of arson.

The state Fire Marshal's Office has released few details about how the fires were set, and is still investigating the cause of the third fire, which destroyed two vacant buildings on Bartlett Street on Monday. No arrests have been made in that fire.

Brody Covey, the boy accused in the first fire, apparently lived in the building that burned at 111 Blake St. on April 29. His parents were nearly $6,7000 behind on their rent and faced eviction from the building, which was also condemned. Covey faces three counts of arson.

The identity of the second boy, accused of setting the fire on May 3, has not been released. The boy faces four counts of arson.

Authorities are expected to disclose new details about the motive and manner of the arsons at the arraignments.

In Lewiston, whose housing stock is among the oldest in the state, 69 properties are on the city's list for condemnation. Last year, the city tore down 13 structures. The city has faced a particularly difficult housing market where foreclosures have left many buildings to languish without upkeep.

In response to the fires, the city has made a roughly 30-block area downtown the focus of a response effort where firefighters and building inspectors have combed buildings and will secure risky properties.

Fire Chief Paul LeClair said crews have spent this week revisiting properties that are known to be vacant, and posting those determined to be unsafe for firefighters to enter in the event of a fire.

LeClair said his crews have 20 properties to add to that list.

"These additional buildings have been on the vacant building list for more than a year, and now their condition is worsening," LeClair said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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