May 8, 2013

Our View: LePage flouts obligation to help out fire victims

His visit to Lewiston shows a lack of insight into the role of government in disaster recovery.

The visit of a sitting governor to his disaster-stricken hometown would seem to be the perfect time for him to connect with constituents in crisis.

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage takes a moment to reflect while addressing the media Tuesday in Lewiston.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Three major fires in the last 10 days have destroyed 79 apartments in downtown Lewiston, leaving nearly 200 people without a place to live. The city is on alert, and a few words of reassurance from Maine's top elected official would have helped residents feel that they're not alone.

But Gov. LePage didn't offer them a lot of sympathy during a brief tour of the damage Tuesday morning. In fact, he didn't offer them much of anything.

At a news conference, the governor said he had no discretionary funds to direct toward the resettlement process. He also expressed doubt that state agencies could provide much help. When asked what it felt like to be back in his hometown, LePage said, "It brings back bad memories."

Essentially, he told Lewiston residents that they shouldn't count on state government to carry out a bedrock government responsibility: helping people who are in dire circumstances through no fault of their own. Later that day, the governor's spokeswoman delivered the same message, albeit in different words. Though LePage does have $250,000 in a contingency account, she said, he won't be tapping it to help Lewiston.

The governor has often talked about his unhappy childhood in Lewiston. That's beside the point, though, at a time like this. Thousands of other people are still making their lives in this city, and it's hard to imagine their taking comfort from LePage's implication that it's not a desirable place to live.

The governor also apparently lacks insight into the state's role in situations like this one. State fire investigators are assisting the Lewiston Police investigation; the Maine State Housing Authority, Maine Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services are helping coordinate social services for fire victims.

Overseeing disaster response and recovery is part of the government's job description. It makes sense for local officials to take the lead, since they're the most aware of victims' needs, but state agencies have critical resources, such as the documentation that displaced residents need to obtain services. It's not out of line to expect the state to step up during a crisis, even though LePage is acting as if it is.

The state can help prevent as well as respond to disasters. State aid to municipalities helps fund local services such as public safety and building inspection.

In communities with aging housing stock such as Lewiston, it's not hard to project that the revenue-sharing cuts that are part of the governor's budget proposal could lead to fewer inspections and lower the chance of detecting that a structure is at risk of catching fire.

LePage has often voiced the view that state government is too big and has taken on tasks outside its scope. But with his remarks in Lewiston, he's taken this point of view to an extreme, and Lewiston residents will suffer if LePage's apparent wish for the state to abdicate its core responsibilities results in the curtailment of the recovery and rebuilding assistance that this city both needs and deserves.

Correction: The amount of money in Gov. LePage's contingency account has been corrected above.

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