TAXES: Consumer spending sets record

Maine’s taxable sales hit a record high in 2014, fueled by increased consumer spending in autos, lodging and food.

The year’s total of $18.94 billion in taxable sales was 4 percent higher than in 2013 and far exceeded the last pre-recession sales total of $17.42 billion in 2007. In December 2014 alone, sales were up more than 10 percent over the previous year.

The latest increase continues a five-year growth streak for Maine’s economy that is expected to continue, said Michael Allen, associate commissioner for tax policy at Maine Revenue Services. The biggest increase was in automotive and transportation, which includes auto sales, leases, parts, accessories, service and repairs. Taxable sales in that sector were up nearly 7 percent from the previous year. Read the story.

Mill seeks $100M reduction in tax assessment

Sappi Fine Paper North America has filed a formal property tax abatement application with the Skowhegan Board of Assessors for its Somerset Mill, asking that the town lower its tax commitment. The request follows months of negotiations between the town and the mill that in September resulted in a $100 million cut in the tax valuation of the mill. But the mill’s owner claims that was not enough and has asked that its property taxes be cut even further. In 2014, the mill’s value dropped from $567 million to $463 million and Sappi paid $9.3 million in taxes. The current year tax bill is $7.94 million, or about 48 percent of the town’s total tax revenue for 2015. The mill says the assessment is overvalued by $137 million. Read the story.

AGRICULTURE: Good apple crop expected despite frigid winter

Maine’s snowy and cold winter is expected to help this summer’s apple crop. Renae Moran, an expert with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, said she’s “optimistic” about this season, which typically lasts from August through October. The snow cover hasn’t been deep enough to worry apple growers, and temperatures have remained stable and freezing without often reaching dangerously low levels that could harm trees. Nor are there any signs of an early warmth that Moran said can “wreak havoc” on trees. In 2014, Maine produced 26.1 million pounds of apples, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worth nearly $13 million the year before. Read the story.

DEVELOPMENT: East Bayside beneficiary of planning grant

The city of Portland is one of 20 communities to receive a national grant to conduct a long-term planning effort for East Bayside. The Greater Portland Council of Governments was selected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receiving a $200,000 Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Grant, the city announced Wednesday. That money will be used to plan the future of the once-industrial area on the fringe of downtown Portland. The planning process will begin in May and last for two years. The effort will include developing an inventory of brownfield sites, community forums and conversations about the future of the community, and drafting a set of recommendations. Read the story.

Ambassadors arriving to unveil seafood-related incubator

The U.S. ambassador to Iceland and Iceland’s ambassador to the United States will meet with Gov. Paul LePage and visit Portland on Tuesday to promote collaboration between Maine and Iceland. The two ambassadors will speak at an event in Portland highlighting plans to establish a business incubator on the city’s waterfront. The proposed New England Ocean Cluster would focus on bringing companies together to create products related to the sea. The owners of the New England Ocean Cluster have begun discussions with the city to lease space on the city-owned Maine State Pier. A conceptual design for the project will be unveiled at 9 a.m. at the U.S. Custom House in Portland. Read the story.

LEGAL: Scarborough Downs named in breach of contract lawsuit

Suffolk Downs, a horse-racing track in Massachusetts, filed a federal breach of contract lawsuit Monday against Scarborough Downs, alleging that it failed to pay nearly $180,000 in simulcast bets placed at the Maine track for races held elsewhere. Scarborough Downs entered a contract with Suffolk Downs, located in East Boston, in 2012 so that bettors at the two tracks could make wagers remotely on horse races. The agreement specified how the tracks would share profits from customers who lost their wagers, according to the lawsuit. Attorney Edward MacColl, who represents Scarborough Downs, said the Maine track owes Suffolk Downs some money but disputes it owes that much. Read the story.

Contractor faces contempt charges in wake of unpaid fines of $400K

The U.S. Department of Labor is going after a Maine general contractor who it says repeatedly flouted occupational safety rules designed to protect construction workers from dangerous falls. Stephen Lessard, owner of Greene-based Lessard Bros. Construction Inc., put his employees in danger of serious falls by failing to furnish protective equipment such as harnesses and railings on high scaffolds, the Labor Department said Wednesday. The department has filed a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston asking it to hold Lessard in civil contempt for refusing to implement safety measures and pay more than $400,000 in fines for violations cited through 2010. If held in contempt, he could face jail time, the department said. Read the story.

DEFENSE: Delays expected in Zumwalt destroyer

The delivery of the Navy’s Zumwalt stealth destroyer under construction at Bath Iron Works will be delayed because of the complexity of its engineering and propulsion systems. Originally set for this summer, delivery has been pushed back to November, and delivery of the second ship in the class is being pushed back a few months next year. A third ship is on schedule for December 2018. Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Thurraya Kent says the Zumwalt is 94 percent complete, but the complexity of the systems has required extended time for tests and activation. Read the story.

RETAIL: L.L.Bean plans to quadruple number of stores in U.S.

L.L.Bean said Wednesday it hopes to nearly quadruple the number of its U.S. stores to at least 100 by 2020. The Freeport company currently has 25 stores outside of its flagship store in Maine, primarily in the Northeast, and will add four more in 2015. On the same day, the company announced revenue in 2014 had increased 3 percent to $1.61 billion and that 5,300 eligible employees were awarded bonuses of 5 percent of annual pay, or about $1,500 to $2,000 for typical full-time hourly workers, according to the company. Read the story.

ENERGY: N.H. utility plans to divest power plants

New Hampshire’s largest utility on Thursday announced it will sell off its fleet of power plants after months of negotiations with state officials, which could have repercussions on the region’s power generation portfolio. Eversource Energy will sell its nine Public Service Company of New Hampshire hydro facilities and three fossil fuel plants, saying it will save customers at least $300 million. Once the plants are sold, Eversource will buy energy for its New Hampshire customers in the open market, consistent with all other utilities in the state and across the region. But Marc Brown, president of the New England Ratepayers Association, said he fears shutting down those plants will increase the region’s reliance on natural gas and reduce the diversity of energy sources and in the region, potentially pushing costs up for ratepayers. Read the story.