Which creates prosperity: Keeping taxes low or investment of public dollars?

Good morning from Augusta on this somber Friday, when much of the attention is on the town of Jay and 300 Verso paper millworkers from that area who will lose their jobs in the coming months. 

The job losses come less than a year after Verso cut 500 jobs and closed its paper mill in Bucksport last December. There will still be papermaking in Jay, according to a detailed report by Darren Fishell of the BDN, but the workforce will be culled to about 565 people. 

Coincidentally — or not — the Bangor Daily News published another story Thursday, this one by Nick Sambides, Jr., with more bad news. The Pelletier Loggers Family Restaurant Bar and Grill, which opened in 2010 on the momentum of the Discovery Channel’s “American Loggers” television series, has closed for good. Even the fame the three-season run of the show brought to the Pelletier family couldn’t sustain the restaurant. At least 15 people have lost their jobs, which will be especially difficult in an area that has the highest unemployment rate in the state and probably far beyond. 

“Just look around town,” said Eldon Pelletier to Sambides. “You go down Main Street at night and there is no one there.” 

So hats off to the people who soldiered to work every day for untold years and will lose their livelihoods nonetheless. Here’s to hoping this marks new beginnings and that y’all will be OK in the long run. — Christopher Cousins 

Discussion launches in Pittsfield about how to spend financial windfall

Yesterday I reported that the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, which manages retirement accounts for tens of thousands of Maine residents, has paid out more than $40 million to Maine towns and cities that it has been holding since retirement program mergers in the 1990s.

Pittsfield Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said the Town Council is considering funding some overdue projects but that the bulk of the money will be set aside to be used as a rainy day fund to stabilize the town’s tax rate. Pittsfield — which once upon a time was a town I lived in and covered — has kept municipal spending in check for at least a decade, though rises in public school and county government costs have kept upward pressure on the tax rate.

A group called “Heart of Pittsfield” responded to the BDN article with a press release calling for the money to be invested in a community development director and possibly other projects to help bring businesses to the town and expand the tax base. In addition to this lump of cash, Pittsfield has a few things going for it: a shovel-ready industrial park with open parcels and a location adjacent Interstate 95. It’s the only Maine town I know of that owns several downtown parks, a municipal movie theater, a small municipal ski slope, an airport, and a nearly new public library. What’s more, Maine Central Institute, a private academy which doubles as the area’s public high school, brings diversity and culture that is relatively rare in central Maine. And then there’s the fact that it’s the home of Cianbro Corp., a massive construction company that has operations across Maine and the U.S.

It’s a very nice place, but still a struggling one.

Last year, the UTC Fire and Security Plant closed down, wiping out 300 local jobs. Ruth said since then, about 229 of those jobs have been regained by other existing employers and six new small businesses.

Still, Heart of Pittsfield wants more for its community.

“We need to utilize these funds in a manner that catalyzes economic growth in our community,” said Vaughan Woodruff, a Heart of Pittsfield member, in a written statement. Ray Berthelette, who co-founded Heart of Pittsfield with Vaughan, agreed.

“Prolonging the inevitable by maintaining tax rates for a set period of time will only bring hardship to the town of Pittsfield and its people,” he said.

In a way, Pittsfield is a microcosm for the rest of the state and the competing theories that on one hand, keeping taxes low can spur economic activity and on the other, that governmental investments can do the same. We’ll see what happens. — Christopher Cousins

Green-Independent party gathering

The Maine Green-Independent Party state convention will be held Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church at 69 Winthrop St. in Augusta. The event begins at 8:30 a.m.

The keynote speaker will be Maria Girouard of the Penobscot Nation, who among other things is a historian, environmental activist and peace advocate. Her talk will be titled “Reconciling our History: Everything is as it should be?”

There is also an all-day schedule that includes consideration of bylaw changes, candidate introductions and a discussion about presidential candidates. For more information about the convention or the Maine Green Independent Party, click here. — Christopher Cousins

Motorcycle riders: this is for you!

The Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles will hold a series of experienced motorcycle rider training courses at 12 locations across Maine, THIS WEEKEND.

Thanks to a federal grant, the courses are free of charge. The Experienced Rider Education course is for licensed riders who already have their own motorcycles who want to improve their skills and be safer on the road. It includes nine exercises, including collision avoidance, slow-speed maneuvering, maximum braking and cornering.

“With the grown prevalence of distracted driving, it’s become increasingly important for motorcyclists to improve their collision-avoidance skills,” said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in a written statement.

For more information about this weekend’s courses, including times and locations, click here and here. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Cutting granite the old way

Drive around Maine and you’ll see lots of granite, as well as lots of granite foundations that date back well more than a century. Have you ever wondered how those slabs of granite were cut before the days of gigantic electric-powered masonry saws?

The BDN’s Erin Rhoda unearthed this mesmerizing and fascinating video featuring Dennis Carter, who runs the Deer Isle Hostel with his wife, splitting a 26,000-pound block using only wedges and a simple hammer.

Pretty amazing, Mr. Carter, but now let’s see you put it back together. — 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.