TAXES: New laws reduce some taxes, raise others

The income tax rates for most Maine residents will decline in the new year, thanks to a tax cut made possible by higher levies on lodging and some grocery items.

Those changes are among the dozens of new policies that took effect Jan. 1 as a result of legislation passed by Maine lawmakers during their 2015 session.

The top income tax rate will fall from 7.95 percent to 7.15 percent and will begin kicking in at a higher level, namely when an individual earns more than $37,500 rather than the current threshold of $20,900.

Also, estates valued at nearly $5.5 million will be exempt from Maine’s so-called “death tax,” more than doubling the current $2 million state exemption and bringing Maine’s policy in line with the federal tax code.

To help pay for those cuts, lawmakers made permanent the 5.5 percent sales tax rate in place since October 2013 – rather than allowing it to fall back to 5 percent on July 1, 2015, as originally planned – and increased the “lodging tax” on hotel rooms from 8 percent to 9 percent.

Lawmakers also broadened the sales tax by eliminating exemptions on hundreds of goods and services. Read the story.

ENERGY: Homeowners expected to save hundreds as heating oil prices decline

Heating oil prices continue to slide in Maine, following the downward trajectory of global prices.

The statewide average price of oil Monday was $1.83 a gallon, ranging from a low of $1.77 a gallon in the southwestern region of the state to a high of $1.99 a gallon in northern Maine, according to the Governor’s Energy Office. Last week, the statewide average was $1.86 a gallon and it was $1.92 a gallon the week before.

Kerosene prices also dipped, down 2 cents a gallon from a week ago to $2.44 a gallon.

Propane prices were flat from a week ago at $2.21 a gallon.

With about two-thirds of Maine homes heated by oil, the savings from lower prices are expected to be significant. The EIA said the cost of oil for homes will average about $1,400 nationwide from October to March, down more than $450 from last winter. Read the story.

Pellet maker reduces operation

Northeast Pellets LLC of Ashland has reduced operations to three days a week, citing several reasons, including dampened demand because of warm weather and the loss of University of Maine at Fort Kent as a major customer, which represented 15 percent of its business.

The plant’s 13 employees had been working 24-hour shifts, five days a week, with maintenance performed on the weekends. UMFK, however, says its continues to support the local pellet industry.

The university’s heating subcontractor is required by contract to buy pellets from two independent sources. The subcontractor, Daigle Oil Co., buys pellets from Northeast and a Canadian supplier because there are no other local suppliers in the area. Read the story.

Utility considers removing dams on Mousam River

A Kennebunk electric utility is weighing whether to remove the three lowest dams on the Mousam River or face potentially costly upgrades to restore fish passage to a river that once hosted large runs of spawning fish.

Trustees at Kennebunk Light & Power District have until March 2017 to decide whether to seek federal relicensing of three dams the nonprofit utility owns on the Mousam River or propose several alternatives for the facilities.

One option under serious consideration is the removal of some or all three of the dams. Removing the three dams would allow the lower 9 miles of the Mousam River to flow freely – although an additional 12 dams remain on the upper stretch of river – and is part of an intense river restoration push in Maine.

After two years of review, Kennebunk Light & Power released a report that concluded that relicensing the Kesslen, Twine Mill and Dane Perkins dams would cost between $8.8 million and $11.7 million. Much of that cost would be consumed by installing fish ladders or other methods of fish passage that would likely be required to receive a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Read the story.

RETAIL: Dashing the hopes of shoppers, IKEA reports no plans to open Portland store

A mysterious sign first spotted on Christmas Day at the site of the former St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church read, “Future home of IKEA … Opening 2016.”

The sign has since been taken down, but not before several passers-by posted photos of it on social media and wondered if the celebrated Swedish home furnishings retailer really was planning to expand into Portland in the coming year.

Not so. A spokesman for IKEA said the retailer generally requires about 2 million people living within a reasonable driving distance to be considered for a new store location.

The company has not looked actively at Maine, and it is not considered a candidate for expansion. Read the story.

TRANSPORTATION: State DOT outsources operation of Casco Bay Bridge

The Maine Department of Transportation intends to award a five-year, $3.8 million contract to operate and maintain the Casco Bay Bridge to a Florida company, the first time the state has turned over bridge operations to a private firm.

The move is cost-neutral for the bridge operation but will allow the agency to reallocate eight of the nine state positions now dedicated to Casco Bay Bridge operations to other transportation work, primarily bridge and road maintenance, said the director of maintenance and operations for the Department of Transportation. That will result in some financial savings elsewhere, and allow for more roadwork to be done in a timely manner.

The state selected Miami-based FDI Services Inc., which also does business as Florida Drawbridge Inc., for the contract. The bridge operations company will provide the same service as the Department of Transportation, with two-person crews operating the bridge around the clock, and doing light maintenance.

The state will continue to have an on-site supervisor at the bridge and will handle heavy maintenance and structural work. Some lawmakers protested the announcement, saying legislators should have been consulted before DOT finalized the decision to outsource. Read the story. 

SPORTS: New training center planned for Sugarloaf

A $1 million grant from the Bill and Joan Alfond Foundation will pay half the costs of a new Carrabassett Valley Academy training center at Sugarloaf.

The grant, announced Monday, will help pay for the construction of an 11,000-square-foot competition center.

Construction of the facility is expected to begin in May and be finished by the end of November.

Plans call for day lodge space, tuning and waxing facilities, locker rooms, a trainers’ room, meeting space and offices. The new building is expected to be fully operational and tested in advance of the U.S. Alpine Championships, which return to Sugarloaf in March 2017.

In addition to the lead gift from the Alfonds, Carrabassett Valley Academy and the Sugarloaf Ski Club are working to raise an additional $850,000 needed to complete the project. Read the story.