Base Closure Realities
When the Pentagon released its list of proposed base closures and realignments recently, the Northeast - and Maine in particular - took one of the biggest hits in terms of military and civilian jobs. In Maine, the Defense Department is calling for the closure of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, major downsizing at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, and elimination of the Defense Finance Accounting Service at Limestone and the Naval Reserve Center in Bangor. In all, nearly 7,000 military and civilian jobs would be eliminated.
As one might expect, Maine's congressional delegation, the governor, and other state and local officials and business leaders reacted with anger and dismay. Terms such as "unconscionable," "outrageous," and "unthinkable" were the order of the day. And similar reactions were being heard across the nation as state after state responded to the proposal to close thirty-three major bases, realign twenty-nine others, and shut down scores of smaller installations. The Pentagon's goal is to transform and streamline the nation's military infrastructure, designed for the Cold War era, to better address twenty-first century defense concerns.
But from the perspective of the states that are on the hit list, it is the economic, rather than the military, consequences of the Defense Department proposals that are of primary concern. And it's easy to understand why. The closures and realignments will result in the net loss of nearly 30,000 jobs as the Pentagon aims at projected savings of $49 billion over twenty years. The truth is that, if local or regional economic considerations were the determining factor, the Department of Defense probably never would close a base in the United States.
Over the next few months, coalitions of government and business leaders across the country will be going before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, hoping to make the case that a base or installation in their particular state should be spared. With U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in the forefront, Maine's delegation will be prominent among them. And perhaps, as the senators claim, the case can be made that Maine's installations should remain as essential components of the nation's defense system. In the case of Portsmouth shipyard, its commendable record for quality, efficiency, and safety would seem to justify further consideration. But history suggests that the odds of overturning the Pentagon's recommendations are less than favorable.
That being the case, we would urge Maine's leaders to begin concurrent planning - immediately - for life without a significant military presence in the state. That transition will be a painful one, as past experience with the closure of Loring Air Force Base in Limestone has shown. But every month of delay will cost the state dearly in its effort to replace 7,000 jobs, should the Pentagon recommendations stand. -Ellsworth American
Breaking a Tax Promise
It's disappointing to see municipalities live up to expectations when it comes to the extra money they've been given in the name of local property-tax relief. Rather than use all the extra state school aid they'll be receiving in the next fiscal year to lower property taxes, towns and cities are increasing local spending. In many cases, the municipality can paper over this breach of trust by pointing out that local taxes are still falling, though often by not as much as they could.
Critics of the idea of hiking state school aid as a means for lowering the local property tax burden foresaw this, but voters - anxious for some kind of property-tax relief - chose to back raising state aid for local schools by $250 million or more. They did so after proponents of the measure asserted that nearly all the money would be used by towns and cities to cut local taxes.
That doesn't appear to be happening. Instead, towns and cities are putting some of the new money toward lower taxes, but in many cases are also using extra state funding to boost local spending.
Freeport, for instance, had pledged prior to passage of the school-aid referendum that it would be directing nearly all the new state money it received to property-tax relief. Instead, the school department has proposed hanging on to much of the extra $240,000 it will receive from the state. The town council, however, wants to cut the school budget and direct more money to property-tax relief. That's the principled thing to do.
In another example, Westbrook is getting $2.1 million more in school aid next year, and the school department wants to turn over just $900,000 for property-tax relief. By any reasonable reading of the intent of the school funding mandate passed by voters, that's $1.2 million less than it should be.
It didn't have to be this way. When lawmakers began debate earlier this year on how to implement the school-funding mandate, there was discussion of requiring towns and cities to use the money for property-tax relief.
In the end, the law did include a requirement of sorts, but it allowed a town or city to set that mandate aside with a simple vote of its governing body. In other words, it was no requirement at all.
This shows the fundamental flaw in the school-funding mandate. Rather than help property taxpayers, it instead pumps more money into the cities and towns that are already spending most of the tax dollars raised in Maine. -Portland Press Herald
Wrong Side of the Tracks
Talk about being railroaded.
Raymond Baker lives near the railroad tracks in Rumford. Baker's the kind of neighbor everyone might want to have, at least in one regard. Seeing what looked to him to be unusual wear on the tracks that run through his community, Baker started asking questions. He called the Sun Journal and showed a reporter tracks that appeared well past their prime.
For his efforts, for blowing the whistle on what could be a dangerous deterioration of the railroad tracks that carry potentially hazardous chemicals to the MeadWestvaco paper mill, Baker is being prosecuted. The charge? While showing a photographer the frayed and mangled steel of the tracks, Baker broke the law. It is illegal to walk on railroad tracks, and a photograph showed him doing just that.
After causing the track's owner, Guilford Rail System, of North Billerica, Massachusetts, some public-relations heartburn, the company called the Rumford Police Department and requested that Baker be cited. He was summoned for trespassing. Baker says that the summons is an attempt to intimidate him. That's too kind. It's an absolute abuse of power.
Guilford Rail System says the tracks are safe. But their appearance suggests otherwise. They are cracked, frayed, and brittle. Instead of answering Baker's questions, the company sent the law after him. It's this type of malicious and petty prosecution that earns the justice system scorn and promotes the stereotypes of mindless corporate behemoths interested only in a good image and the bottom line, public concern be damned.
Here's a little free advice to the railroad: Drop the trespassing charge against Baker, bring your safety experts to town and explain why the tracks are safe, and say thank-you to a member of the community who cares enough about his neighbors to point out what looks like a problem.
The railroad owner is jumping the track by pushing these charges. No good can come from it. -Sun Journal, Lewiston
Lisbon's Second Language
Yes, it would have saved Lisbon taxpayers a few dollars. But voters made a wise decision at Lisbon's annual town meeting recently when they approved adding $43,000 to the school-department budget to retain the one-year-old French program at the Lisbon Community School.
If only more school systems could find a way to introduce foreign languages to elementary school students! For this is the age when students' minds are literally "programmed" to acquire language, which makes it that much easier to master and retain a second language. The United States lags pitifully far behind the countries of the European Union when it comes to its citizens being able to communicate in languages other than English - a real liability in the global economy. And with so much of Lisbon's history being tied to its Franco-American community, what better way to give today's students a deeper appreciation of their heritage than to learn French? -Times Record, Brunswick
A Step Forward for LNG
Although the Passamaquoddy tribal council at Pleasant Point recently voted to sign a contract to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on its land on Passamaquoddy Bay, the project is far from reality. In addition to needing numerous federal and state approvals, local opposition - both on and off the reservation - must be addressed for this to be a worthwhile endeavor.
Faced with a deadline to reach an agreement with the developer, the tribal council voted 4-3 to accept a deal to build the LNG facility on reservation land in exchange for $8 million a year. The vote was immediately attacked by some tribal members. This does not bode well for the project or the tribe. Quoddy Bay LLC, the Oklahoma company that proposes to build the gas terminal, considers the vote the final approval it needs from the tribe because the project was also approved by tribal members last summer by a vote of 193-132.
After the tribal vote, the project appeared to be moving forward. However, when the tribe annexed the land where the terminal was initially proposed on Gleason Cove, it signed an agreement giving the residents of the town of Perry power to approve or reject commercial development on the parcel. Perry residents rejected the project, and the promise of $1 million a year from Quoddy Bay, with a 279-214 vote in March.
Quoddy Bay and Passamaquoddy officials continued to look for a suitable location for the pier and tanks that would be needed to offload and hold LNG that arrives in tankers. They settled on the Slick Rock location, which does not need approval from neighboring communities. The company now plans to seek approval of the contract from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. If that is granted, engineering and environmental studies would then be undertaken before applications for state and federal permits are filed.
The company and tribe also need to continue to reach out to neighboring communities and those who vehemently oppose the project. The debate has long been one of economic development versus preserving traditions and the environment. Both are possible, but only if there is real dialogue.
Demand for natural gas, which is cleaner burning than oil or coal, has grown rapidly. There are currently only four LNG terminals in operation in the United States, but dozens are on the drawing board. LNG projects in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have already received preliminary approvals. Maine has no say and may derive little benefit from these projects.
If a terminal can be built and operated with minimal impact on the environment while providing good paying jobs in an area that sorely needs them and a cleaner energy source to communities, both local and nationwide, this project may have a future. -Bangor Daily News
Losing Quality Jobs
We were not surprised that a report presented to Maine business people by Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman showed a continuing decline in the state's manufacturing jobs. In fact, it states that the fastest rate of job growth over the coming decade is expected in the service sector, which includes food preparation and serving-related jobs. So this state can expect to see more people going from high-paying or at least decent-paying production jobs to minimum wage restaurant and store jobs.
The report's findings are not surprising given the recent headlines in all of the papers. And the damage isn't just in the manufacturing industry. MBNA has pulled out of Rockland, Camden, and Northport. In the last few years, the former Kirschner facility and Sanmina-SCI closed in Augusta, putting hundreds of people out of work. The Defense Department's call for closure of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and cuts to Brunswick Naval Air Station may mean the loss of 7,000 defense jobs in the state.
Unemployment is low, and there may even be a shortage of workers for jobs in the future as the baby boomers retire. However, the quality of Maine's jobs must also be considered. There are serious questions about whether this state is ready to make an effort to be more business-friendly, to attract decent jobs to the area.
Right now lawmakers are arguing over a budget that could place a massive debt on taxpayers' shoulders into the future. Mainers now pay about 13 percent in taxes as a percentage of personal income, compared to a national average of 10.1 percent. We face some of the highest state taxes in the nation.
Will our young people continue to pour out of the state after graduation seeking better jobs and opportunities? Unless something changes, that seems likely. -Republican Journal, Belfast