Maine leaders want changes to tax-credits program

Lawmakers are calling for changes to a state program that awards tax credits to investors who put their money into businesses in low-income communities. The legislators’ scrutiny comes after a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation revealed that Maine taxpayers will dole out $16 million in tax refunds for investments that never flowed to a now-shuttered paper mill in East Millinocket. The program was created in 2011 to channel money from investors into eligible businesses. In exchange, investors receive a state tax credit worth 39 percent of the total investment, payable over seven years. But unlike the federal program on which it was modeled, the Maine program makes its tax credits refundable – meaning the investors can redeem them for cash if they have no Maine income tax liability. The program was tapped by Cate Street Capital, a New Hampshire private equity firm, to direct $40 million to Great Northern Paper, a foundering mill it owned in East Millinocket. None of the money was used to modernize the mill as described in the initial application to the program, yet taxpayers will pay $16 million to the investors. The mill closed and filed for bankruptcy last year. Read the story.


BIW labor dispute hits federal court

An ongoing labor dispute at Bath Iron Works, one of Maine’s largest employers, spilled over into federal court Wednesday as the union that represents thousands of workers asked a judge to decide against having the dispute settled by arbitration. The union, Local S6 chapter of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland after it came to loggerheads with management at the General Dynamics-owned shipyard in Bath as it tries to reclassify workers’ jobs as defined by their contract. The company is attempting to cut costs to improve its chances of landing a contract to build U.S. Coast Guard cutters, an initiative the company says relies on greater flexibility by management to assign workers. The union’s president, Jay Wadleigh, said management is inappropriately trying to change the rules while there is an agreed-upon labor contract in place. Read the story.


Maine’s March jobless rate lowest in 7 years

Maine’s March jobless rate dropped to its lowest point since February 2008. The preliminary seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.8 percent for March was down from 5.0 percent in February and 5.8 percent one year ago, according to a release from the Maine Department of Labor. The U.S. preliminary unemployment rate of 5.5 percent was unchanged from February and down from 6.6 percent one year ago. The New England unemployment rate averaged 5.2 percent. Rates for other states were 3.9 percent in New Hampshire, 3.8 percent in Vermont, 4.8 percent in Massachusetts, 6.3 percent in Rhode Island, and 6.4 percent in Connecticut. The number of unemployed in Maine declined 7,800 over the year to 32,100. Read the story.

USM researchers studying Maine’s growing remote workforce

Remote workers – who live in Maine and work remotely for out-of-state companies – are a growing slice of the state’s workforce and are being studied by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine. The number of remote workers in the state is difficult to gauge, because the IRS doesn’t track where a company’s workers are based, and U.S. Census Bureau numbers track how many people work from home, but not whether they are working for a company based elsewhere. The phenomenon has developed only in the last generation, with the advent of Internet connections, email and cellphones. Before that, working from home for anyone other than the self-employed was fraught with difficulties. And while technology has made it easier to communicate with co-workers and customers hundreds or thousands of miles away, hurdles remain. Read the story.


Sale pending on historic church

After more than 130 years providing religious services to residents in the Portland area, Clark Memorial United Methodist Church is being sold to an undisclosed buyer. Attendance at the church, on the northwest corner of Forest and Pleasant avenues near Woodfords Corner in Portland, has dwindled to the point where it is no longer financially possible to keep the property, said the church’s pastor. The church and its adjacent community center and parsonage were listed for sale in November for about $600,000. The sale is expected to close in June. Read the story

Maine home sales, median price up for the quarter

The median sale price for existing single-family homes in Maine was up slightly for the three-month period ending in March, further evidence that the market has stabilized following a long period of decline. The Maine Association of Realtors reported Wednesday that the median price for homes sold statewide in January, February and March was $165,500, up 1.2 percent from the same three-month period of 2014. It was the third month in a row that the median price was up slightly over the same rolling quarter of 2014. Realtors in Maine sold 950 single-family homes in March, an increase of 6.5 percent from March 2014, the Realtors association reported. The median sale price for detached, single-family homes in the state was $170,000 in March, up from $167,400 in February and $162,000 in March 2014, it said. Read the story.


Half-empty Brunswick shopping center’s mortgage referred to debt collector

The mortgage on half-empty Merrymeeting Plaza in Brunswick has been referred to a debt collector out of concern that the shopping center’s owner might walk away. But the owner, Massachusetts-based WS Development, said it has no intention of defaulting on the $24.4 million loan and is in talks to bring new tenants into the plaza. The struggling retail development at 145 and 147 Bath Road, anchored by a Shaw’s grocery store, has lost numerous tenants in recent years including Famous Footwear, Day’s Jewelers, Little Bambinos, Old Navy, Fashion Bug and Borders. Another tenant, GameStop, plans to close its Merrymeeting location this month. Read the story.

Complaints few as Portland adapts to plastic bag fee

Customers at Portland grocery stores are adapting to the city’s new bag fee with few complaints, according to area retailers. As of April 15, all stores that generate at least 2 percent of their revenue from groceries have been required to charge their customers 5 cents for every plastic or paper bag they take from a checkout line. The fee, which does not apply to restaurants, farmers markets or pharmacies, is intended to reduce the number of disposable bags and in theory the amount of nonbiodegradable litter in the city. Store owners are required by a city ordinance, enacted by the City Council last June, to post a sign informing customers about the fee and itemize the bag fee on their receipts. Store owners keep the revenue from the bag fees. Portland is the first city in the state to adopt a disposable bag fee, joining more than 150 other communities nationwide. Several other communities, including Freeport, are considering bag fees or bans. Read the story.


Zootility Tools’ success comes in many shapes

Zootility Tools has big plans to produce and sell a steel menagerie of animal-shaped pocket tools in Portland. The Massachusetts-based startup has opened a manufacturing, packaging and distribution facility in East Bayside and already is producing thousands of ultra-thin tools per week with names like PocketMonkey, Headgehog and Beer & Friends. It also plans to open a retail store at the 170 Anderson St. location.

So far, the company has seven employees working at its Portland facility. Zootility’s first product line, the PocketMonkey, has sold more than 250,000 units, according to company spokesman Chris Bent. Designed to fit into a conventional wallet, the tool can be used as a ruler, bottle opener, vegetable peeler, screw driver, hex wrench and more. It launched the product in late 2012 with a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $27,550 from 1,921 backers. The PocketMonkey’s 12 different tools are crammed into a 1 millimeter-thick stainless steel plate the size of a credit card. Read the story.