Daily Brief: Train bills rolling through Augusta; a case study on the LePage budget

Howdy from Augusta, where discussions about extending passenger and freight rail service to the Lewiston-Auburn area are heating up with a request for the state to allocate $1 million toward planning for the project. 

The bill by Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, would provide one-time funding for final engineering design and environmental assessment for the state-owned portion of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad from Yarmouth Junction to the Auburn city line. The state purchased that 24-mile portion of tracks in 2010 with the intention of preserving them in the event that train traffic on them might someday increase. Could that day be in the offing? 

Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, has another bill that would come at the issue from a different angle by creating transportation districts with the authority to oversee maintenance and support of the service.

Opening the line to increased use, which would come at a steep cost, could provide a link to Amtrak service to Boston at the southern end and freight service to points in Canada. Nate Moulton, director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s rail program, said Monday that the Legislature is driving these developments, not the department. 

“We bought the line because of very limited freight usage of it,” he said. “We don’t have a distinct plan or a timeframe right now.” 

Last year, B&G Foods, which owns the B&M baked bean plant in Portland, inked a deal to keep service on the line running. B&M, which depends on the line to transport its product and ingredients, has been the only customer for the line since 2006. That development came after the railroad asked federal regulators to shut down the 24-mile line. 

The concept of a revival for the track is gaining steam. A group of organizations has scheduled a press conference for Tuesday at the State House, including the Sierra Club, the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce and Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald. 

Elsewhere at the State House, the volume of bills moving to the House and Senate is picking up and both bodies will begin thrice-a-week sessions this week. — Christopher Cousins

Election today in Rockland

Voters in Rockland and Owls Head go to the polls today to fill a House seat vacated in January when Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson of Rockland resigned just weeks after being re-elected for her second term. The four candidates for the seat are all from Rockland: Democrat Anne Beebe-Center, Republican James Kalloch, Green Independent Ron Huber and libertarian Shawn Levasseur.

Stephen Betts, the BDN’s veteran Rockland-area reporter, has been covering this election closely, which will continue to be the case today. — Christopher Cousins

Case study: The LePage budget

Standish Town Manager Gordon Billington, like many other municipal leaders in Maine, is staring budget season in the face and this year, there are far more uncertainties than usual. Putting together a local spending proposal in February and March that depends on revenue from the state — which probably won’t pass its budget until May or June, if by then — has always been a challenge for many Maine towns and cities.

This year, the state budget has larger-than-normal implications for municipalities. According to a detailed report by Ezra Silk of the Lakes Region Weekly, Billington will present a budget to his town council and constituents tonight that assumes LePage’s proposal will be 100 percent enacted. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Spending in the $8.2 million Standish budget increases 5.9 percent in Billington’s proposal — about $460,000 — yet the property tax rate drops 2.4 percent to $11.86 per $1,000 of valuation. These figures don’t include spending for schools or county government.
  • Eliminating the homestead exemption for homeowners under age 65 and doubling it for those over 65, as LePage proposes, will expand the town’s tax base by approximately $17 million. From another perspective, that’s an increase on property taxes for about 2,000 of the town’s 2,200 homeowners who have qualified for the homestead exemption.
  • The town’s estimated property tax base would expand by another $23 million from taxing large nonprofit organizations from their value above $500,000, as LePage proposes. The Salvation Army’s Camp Sebago would pay $22,000 in new property taxes; the Standish Kiwanis Club, which owns lakefront property, would pay $8,000 more; and St. Joseph’s College would pay about $230,000 more than they did this year. That’s a total of about $260,000.
  • The Portland Water District, which owns much of Standish’s shorefront on Sebago Lake, would not be taxed.
  • The town is set to receive about $297,000 in municipal revenue sharing from the state next year, but that sum would be zeroed out in the second year of LePage’s budget.
  • If LePage’s tax reform attempt fails, the town predicts that its property tax rate would remain roughly flat.

Standish is typical in a lot of ways and not so typical in others. Many towns don’t have any large nonprofit organizations to levy new taxes on, which would tip this equation decidedly toward costing those towns money. The Maine Municipal Association estimates that about 75 percent of the tax-exempt properties in Maine exist in about 43 of the 490 towns and cities in Maine. — Christopher Cousins

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly stated amounts that the town of Standish would gain and lose under LePage’s tax reform plan. The amounts were in reference to the expansion of the town’s property tax base.

Reading list

Three generations gone at once

On most days, this portion of the Daily Brief is reserved for something light and occasionally funny, which we hope sets the tone for your morning. Today, I’m giving you something tragic in hopes that you’ll remember it next time — and every time — you’re behind the wheel.

You may have seen the headline yesterday about an Aroostook County crash Monday morning that killed four people and seriously injured a fifth. Beyond the headline, you’ll see that three of the victims were related: Laurie Ann Johnston, 52, of Carlingford, New Brunswick; her daughter, 33-year-old Bobbi-Jo Johnston of Fort Fairfield; and 2-year-old Alana Nelson, Bobbi-Jo Johnston’s daughter who represented the third generation killed in this single crash.

In the other car, 38-year-old Kimberly Lausier of Madawaska perished behind the wheel. The lone survivor of the crash was her husband and passenger, Robert Lausier, 53, who is recovering from serious injuries at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Today, one family faces a future with major branches clipped brutally from its family tree. In another family, a husband recovers from injuries, the worst and longest-lasting of which I presume are from the horror he witnessed at the accident scene.

Read the story. Hug your family. Slow down. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.