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Critics call DHHS office move a 'no win'; Mayor Brennan: 'We do have an election in November'

The proposed relocation of Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices to the Jetport Access Road in South Portland would hinder service recipients from getting back on their feet, officials argued during a press conference Wednesday.8-22-14-DHHS-1
The issue also looms as a factor in the fall elections, as Portland's mayor suggested that a new administration in the Blaine House could render the controversy moot.
Governor Paul LePage has highlighted the proposed relocation of DHHS from Portland to South Portland as a benefit for taxpayers and service users.
"This is a good deal for the taxpayers of Maine, and it consolidates two agencies into one providing Mainers resources and services, which are easily accessible," LePage said in January, when the proposal was unveiled. "Our Administration looks forward to serving Mainers at this new location and continuing to help people identify services and programs that are most helpful and offer training and assistance to successfully transition people from welfare to a career they enjoy."
Opponents said the proposal makes no sense, placing a burden of time and money on people living in poverty.8-22-14-DHHS-2
"Ask yourself, would that help you get out of poverty, or just add to your problems?" said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, posing the question about the extended travel time to reach the new proposed location for the office.
On Jan. 2, H. Sawin Millett Jr., commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, announced that state officials had reached a deal that he predicted would "save the taxpayers of the state of Maine more than $23.4 million over the next 30 years when compared to current Portland leased facility rates." Millett said by moving the DHHS office, now located on Marginal Way in Portland, to the Jetport area, the lease rate could be reduced.8-22-14-DHHS-3
The state of Maine signed a contract with ELC Construction, Inc. for the lease of new DHHS and Department of Labor consolidated offices in South Portland, Millett announced at the time.
"The negotiated lease is a great deal for the state," said Millett. "Our tough negotiations since the bid was awarded provided for more than $9.4 million of additional savings over the bid price."
The 30-year lease offered the state 75,000 square feet of space for DHHS and DOL to co-locate their Cumberland County offices, Millett reported. The consolidation of the two agencies into one location aimed to "make it easier for clients to access services provided by both agencies and promote the Administration's goal of enabling Mainers toward economic independence by providing opportunities to move from welfare to work," a department press release explained.
Critics have called the plan a mistake, saying that the people that DHHS sets out to help will suffer as a result.
Jim Devine, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, noted during the press conference on Wednesday that since December, the group has held demonstrations on the third Wednesday of each month to urge LePage to keep DHHS offices "local and accessible in downtown Portland."
"We have spoken with many people walking in and out of these doors who will be impacted by moving the DHHS office to South Portland," Devine said. "And what we have been hearing is almost always the same. The people who access these services do not support this move. The majority of people are devastated about how this move will impact their lives. I'm one of them."
Devine told his own story of working as an electrician until rendered unable to work because of a disability. Now, he relies on Maine's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps.
"I receive SNAP benefits to help make ends meet each month. I don't know what I'll do if the offices are moved out to the Jetport," Devine said.
"Taking the bus is incredibly time consuming," he said, citing questions from clients about how they will manage a two-hour round trip and bus fare when living in poverty.
Ryan said his son, who "happens to have a disabling condition," receives services from Maine DHHS.
"He's 18, but he would have no idea how to get to a remote location many miles from here, 36 bus stops away," Ryan said.
Ryan described the proposal as a "step backwards."
"Twenty-five hundred people walk through the doors of this building every month, these are real individuals and families in poverty facing very difficult circumstances. None of these families will be better off and none of the children will be better with the proposed location," Ryan said.
"Parents prove that they will do just about anything, they will even camp out in the middle of winter in a cold, snowy parking lot in order to provide food and shelter for their loved ones," Ryan said, citing an actual incident witnessed in Portland during the winter.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said, "I'm not happy about being here. I think it's extremely unfortunate that we have to be here today and that we have to have this discussion due to a bad decision that was made by the Department of Health and Human Services and by the LePage administration."
Describing the proposal as a "no win" situation, Brennan said the state will not save money because "the project they're investing in was not the lowest bidder."
"The role of government is to solve problems, not to create problems," Brennan said.
And when asked about the amount of time needed to reverse the decision, Brennan suggested that the November elections, including that for governor, could play an important role.
Brennan noted that "a new administration and a new governor may take a fresh look," an unspoken nod to the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, in his bid to unseat LePage.
"Certainly the construction is ongoing in South Portland, and the building is being built, but we do have an election in November," Brennan said, "and who knows, in January, what the decision might be at that point. There could be a whole new administration that would take a much more (pragmatic stance), an approach of trying to solve the problem here as opposed to, as I said before, creating a new problem. So I don't think at this point it's a done deal."

Last Updated on Friday, 22 August 2014 02:04

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Coastal Humane Society to reopen Saturday following ringworm quarantine

Two weeks ahead of schedule, Coastal Humane Society in Brunswick has been allowed by the Maine Animal Welfare Program to reopen after a quarantine period to treat an isolated case of ringworm in five puppies it had received from Alabama, the shelter reported Thursday. The state had originally required the facility to be closed for 28 days minimum. Coastal's Range Road shelter will reopen to the public at noon on Saturday, Aug. 23.

A state official confirmed the permission to reopen.

"We sent a notice of a limited quarantine release today," John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said Thursday. This agency includes the Animal Welfare Program.

"We've lifted the quarantine on the other areas of the facility and just kept it on the small area where the five dogs are being housed," Bott said.

Once it can be confirmed that the animals are no longer contagious, than the limited quarantine can be lifted as well, he said.

Bott said state officials acknowledged "really good efforts" by shelter staff to contain the spread of any ringworm spores, particularly citing Dr. Mandie Wehr, Coastal's shelter veterinarian and director of shelter operations as well as efforts made by the other shelter staff.
In a press release, Wehr said, "We credit the early re-opening of the shelter to our proactive and attentive staff, and to best-practice infectious disease protocols."
Shelter staff maintained 16 different quarantine zones so that no ringworm spores could spread throughout the Range Road facility, according to a Coastal Humane Society press release. After two rounds of testing in each of these zones, all of which came back negative, each environment has been deemed clear of ringworm by the state, the press release reported. No other animals in the shelter but the original five have displayed any symptoms of the fungal infection, the shelter reported.
In an email to Dr. Wehr, Liam Hughes, director of the state's Animal Welfare Program, agreed, according to the shelter press release, in which he was quoted, "I look forward to sitting down with you and discussing your protocols and how we can share that knowledge with the other shelters in the state. They are very impressive and you are doing good work there."
The early opening of the shelter will allow The Coastal Humane Society to apply all adoptions through Aug. 31 to Coastal's final tally in the Rachael Ray/ASPCA $100,000 Challenge, a summer-long, nationwide effort among 50 animal shelters.
"We will continue to place as many deserving animals as possible in the right, loving homes through the end of the Challenge on Aug. 31," said Dr. Wehr.
Mary Fifield, interim executive director, said, "We plan to finish the summer in the spirit of the Challenge, just as we began it back in June."
The five puppies that contracted ringworm in Alabama will continue their treatment in isolation and will be put up for adoption when healthy, the society announced.
Coastal Humane Society's events through Labor Day will be as follows:
• Saturday, Aug. 23 and Sunday, Aug. 24: "Kitten Impossible and Agent K9" featuring kittens priced at $99, and fee-waived cats. Dogs will be priced normally.
• Saturday, Aug. 23 is also the date of Coastal's biggest fundraiser, the annual Paws for a Cause in Freeport. "Coastal Humane is particularly anxious to meet their goal of $30,000 this year in order to help offset the costs of their temporary closure," the press release stated. Everyone is invited to participate with their canine friends in Saturday's 5K run/walk, or the 1-Mile Walk & Parade that follows it, or to donate to Paws for a Cause. To register, donate, or see the schedule of events, visit: www.coastalhumanesociety.org/paws.
• Friday, Aug. 29 through Sunday, Aug. 31: "Top Dogs and Comeback Cats." Animal fees/discounts will be announced next week, the press release stated.

 

Last Updated on Friday, 22 August 2014 00:45

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Portland's I-295 leg proves busy, dangerous

Behind only January and December, the month of August is the most dangerous for driving on Interstate 295 in Portland, based on crash statistics compiled during the past decade.8-22-14-crashes-1

According to state traffic data, from 2003 up through this summer as of Aug. 19, police have investigated 122 crashes in August — and that number is expected to rise in the days ahead. This month's total, officially at five as of Tuesday, remains tentative and likely will increase as more reports trickle in, according to Duane Burnell, safety office manager at Maine Department of Transportation.
July's official count for this summer came in at five crashes in the Portland segment, but many more occurred in other legs of I-295 based on numerous reports of incidents during the busy tourist season.

On Monday, the Maine Turnpike Authority reported via Twitter, "Maine State Police report a crash on I-295 northbound near the Fore River (Mile 3 area), expect delays, seek alternate routes. ... Additional crashes are reported SB I-295 in the Forest Ave./Congress Street area, and southbound in Falmouth. Use caution/expect delays. ... Motorcycle crash southbound on I-295 in Portland near the Forest Avenue Exit, the left lane is blocked, expect delays."8-22-14-crashes-3

For Paul McCarthy, news that this summer has brought a rash of crashes on the interstate isn't a shocker. The assistant office manager at Mermaid Transportation, based in Scarborough, McCarthy said he doesn't remember a summer where company drivers faced more delays due to motor vehicle accidents on the interstate.

Anywhere between Tukey's Bridge and the Fore River Bridge, motor vehicle crashes have delayed drivers, he said.

"We have been delayed several times by motor vehicle accidents," McCarthy said.

"Last year I can recall one time when we were delayed and prior to that it's been quite a long time to encounter delays from motor vehicle accidents," he said.

"We budget more time as a pre-emptive kind of thing, but we more often just choose alternate routes to get around where the blockages are," McCarthy noted.

Mermaid Transportation runs shuttles for a Medicaid and Medicare broker, particularly to transport residents to medical appointments, he said. About 60 percent of business is Medicare and Medicaid work and shuttling passengers to and from their appointments, he said.

Paul Niehoff, senior transportation planner with Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS, the metropolitan planning organization for the Portland region, said an ongoing study likely will contain public feedback about the busy, and often overcrowded, I-295 corridor and its driving hazards.

"We just finished a survey that should inform our long-range transportation plan, asking people what their habits are, commuting habits, transportation choices, and what they think the area's needs are," Niehoff said.

The results haven't been compiled, but the problem of congestion and crashes on I-295 in Portland likely will come up, he predicted.

"I'm guessing we're going to hear about it," Niehoff said.

The plan may be finished in 2015, but transportation planning officials aim to tackle issues raised in the survey earlier than the plan's release if possible.

In an email response to questions from The Sun, Carl Eppich, another senior transportation planner with PACTS, wrote that the high-speed design of I-295 is a problem between East Deering exit 8 and exit 3 in South Portland.

Eppich, like Niehoff, foresaw public concern in the survey for the PACTS Destination 2040 long-range transportation plan. The "PACTS Transportation Values & Priorities Survey," he said, will firm up these concerns about the interstate.

 

Distracted drivers

 

When asked what accounts for many motor vehicle crashes in Maine, officials echo the same words: "distracted driving."

Distracted driving "is as much of a killer as drinking and driving, it's a public health concern for sure," Eppich said, naming one of the culprits that's the focus of a new state campaign.

Eppich said structural issues with the interstate also play a part.

"The interstate design through Portland is too fast with too much substandard urban design," he said.
Or, as Niehoff explained it, the interstate is the victim of its own success, spurring fast driving that contributes to crashes.

PACTS is working on correcting the problem, Eppich said, although it's not always easy to convince the public to pay for roadway improvements through the traditional method of raising gas taxes. "But we have a new survey coming out soon that will reflect changing attitudes, at least in metro Portland," Eppich predicted, alluding again to the values and priorities survey.

Structurally, transportation officials have tried to ease gridlock. Within the past few years, a lane was added in the northbound exit at Franklin Street in Portland due to concerns about traffic congestion and the potential of backing up onto I-295 — a change which helped ease congestion there, Niehoff recalled.

Next summer, ramp improvements are planned at the interchange of Exit 6 and Forest Avenue to try and lessen the incidence of rear-end crashes, Niehoff said.

Niehoff said two culprits loom large — a speed differential of slow-moving and fast-moving vehicles on one strip of interstate, and the familiar issue of distracted driving.

"It happens to be in my estimation a combination of people in a hurry with people who are following the speed limit ... and then the factor of distracted driving," he said.

Then, there are varying speed limits. Motorists are still adjusting to speed limit changes on I-295, where speeds in many areas increased to 70 mph, as well as changes on the Maine Turnpike. Most recently, the Maine Turnpike Authority noted that effective Monday, Aug. 11, the maximum speed of travel along the Turnpike increased by five miles per hour in many locations. The old speed limit of 65 mph changed to 70 mph, but there were exceptions, including south of mile 2.1 on I-95 in Kittery, where the maximum speed remained at 65 mph; through Greater Portland, north of mile 44.1 in Scarborough and south of mile 52.3 in Falmouth, where the maximum speed went from 55 mph to 60 mph; and on the Falmouth Spur, where the maximum speed moved from 50 mph to 60 mph.

Yet, officials remain convinced that the biggest scourge for public safety on the roads, particularly with smart phones and other portable devices, remains distracted driving. Regarding a spurt of crashes in and around Portland last Monday, WMTW Channel 8, ABC reported, "Sgt. Robert Burke of the state police said a total of six crashes occurred within an hour of each other. The first occurred around 2:30 p.m. on Monday. None of the injuries were serious, Burke said. Ambulances took people to Maine Medical Center in Portland. All the crashes had one thing in common. 'It's simply because people aren't paying attention when they're driving,' Burke said."

On Aug. 5, Gov. Paul LePage, along with the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety and State Police, unveiled a new public awareness campaign against distracted driving. The centerpiece of the campaign was signage on several large commercial trucks that travel in Maine, with the message, "One Text or Call, Can Wreck it All."

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said anecdotes related to distracted driving can involve extreme examples of motorist indifference and recklessness. One Maine State Trooper mentioned a driver playing the guitar while driving, McCausland recalled.
"People are not paying attention to what they're supposed to be doing behind the wheel. Specifically if you're texting, your eyes are not on the road," McCausland said.
The indicators of "weaving, driving too slow for the roadway, looking down" once suggested intoxication. "In the old days, that was an immediate drunk driver," McCausland said. Now it's easily evidence of distracted driving, he noted.
"You eat, you put on makeup, we've seen people read, but playing the guitar was something unique," McCausland said, voicing disbelief.

McCausland said motorists who drive distracted show an alarming disregard for others. Last year, according to the Maine Department of Transportation, 3,111 car crashes in Maine were caused by distracted driving, state officials reported.

"We're finding more and more people are distracted, and particularly when it concerns texting, I know Colonel Williams (Chief of the State Police, Colonel Robert Williams) has made it a point that there are many enforcement efforts that we are going to start doing that we have not done before," McCausland said.

Troopers are riding with special vehicles that are unmarked, patrolling with vans, using commercial vehicles and riding with truckers. The trucking firms taking part in the effort are East Branch Delivery Services of Bangor, Auburn and Presque Isle; Mark Dyer of Bangor, and Jim and Jason Laptewicz of Portland and Bangor.

"It is a problem that we are very much aware of," McCausland said.

Last Updated on Friday, 22 August 2014 02:03

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Beattie: 'You have to put in the time'

Ann Beattie is the author of eight novels, nine short story collections, and the novella "Walks With Men." Beattie has been celebrated as a voice of her generation, and in the 1980s her name spawned the adjective "Beattiesque." Her recent collection "The New Yorker Stories" gathers 48 short stories that have appeared in that august magazine.

TG: I was just speaking with the writer Genevieve Morgan, who said her grandmother has a farm not too far from you? Are you living in Maine full-time now?

AB: Yes, we live in York. We just sold our house in Virginia, finally.

TG: A character in one of your stories has a "mug ... with 20 or so identical pens." Do you have a favorite pen?

AB: Not that fiercely. I tend to write with gel-tipped pens. When Roger Angell (of the New Yorker) edited me, I'll never forget the beauty of his 25 to 30 pencils in a cup on his desk. I'd sit right at his side while he edited. I always remember those pencils point up.

TG: Describe your writing process. Do you keep a pen and pad with you?

AB: I don't keep any sort of notes at all. I don't jot things down, except in the most factual way. When I write, it's like this: I'm at a MacBook that sits on Webster's New Unabridged with an auxiliary keyboard. I have long fingernails and type very quickly and effectively, but my nails are too long (for the MacBook keyboard). I'm sitting at a desk I've had since my 20s. I bought it at an antique store. Behind the desk is a window that looks out over the field across my house. People ask "How can you get anything done with that view?" but either way — looking out the window or down at the page — is good.

TG: What have you been reading lately?

AB: "Far from the Tree (Parents, Children and the Search for Identity)" by Andrew Solomon. Before that, the short stories of Edward Hoagland and his new book coming out, "The Devil's Tub." And Charles Wright's "Caribou." He's the new (U.S.) poet laureate and a personal friend. There's always a glitch in your chest at first (when you get the new book). You say, "I hope I'll like this," and this is really out there, really good. Before that, I read "Sparta," Roxana's book.

TG: Who were your literary influences?

AB: It was so different when I was studying. There was no major in creative writing. (Beattie majored in literature.) Many of the things that were contemporary literature, I stumbled upon. It's different today. I did not have the kind of literary background most people have now.

TG: How would you define the term: Beattiesque?

AB: It was a distinct advantage to come from nowhere with a voice that did sound different in those days. I was picked to be in the New Yorker. Had I that many stories in (other) literary magazines, not as much attention would have drawn to my work and my voice. (To be Beattiesque) I'd say, is for the reader to understand the story on the surface. No longer does that mean anything to do with being radical in its time. There's a pose of casualness, dry humor. The stories are on the short side. (I tend to write now on the long side). A lot of stories in the present tense, stories to do with things: objects, Nixon, the Vietnam War. In terms of how I've moved on with the story, I'm not as omnipresent now.

TG: Do you prefer the short story or the novel?

AB: The short story.

TG: From what writers can the audience expect to hear you read, at the SPACE Gallery reading?

AB: I'll be reading passages from Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Stone, Peter Taylor, and Roxana Robinson. Maybe all won't get included, depending on time.

TG: What advice would you give to young writers starting out today?

AB: At first, you may think you know your work habits, but they might evolve into something different. I would say, "be flexible." Writers will get themselves into any number of situations in order to not write. You have to put in the time. Nobody can do that for you. Others can edit and assist you, but you're the genesis of it.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 August 2014 00:43

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Robinson: 'When I was six, I was a writer'

Roxana Robinson is the author of five novels, three short story collections, and the biography "Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life."

Robinson's "Cost" (2008) was named one of the Five Best Novels of the Year by The Washington Post. She is a revered literary critic and currently serves as the president of the Authors Guild. She was called "John Cheever's heir apparent" by The New York Times Book Review. She spoke about her work recently, ahead of her appearance with Ann Beattie at SPACE Gallery on Wednesday, Aug. 20.

TG: Early story collections, like "A Glimpse of Scarlet" and "Asking for Love," look at loves found, lost and recovered in long-term relationships. What were the ideas that drove them?

RR: These two collections are similar. I was very interested in marriage and the strains that occur in a marriage and the kind of emotional electricity that's set up between the two members of a couple. I was very interested in the struggle — what it's like to be a couple, and part of a family — really the center of life. How do you connect to other people? That part of your life in your 20s, 30s, 40s. You're living at full speed, very connected to your spouse and children. These are powerful connections and can erupt at any moment, short out, break down, or catch on fire.
(The story) "Asking for Love" was drawn from different people (than the story "A Glimpse of Scarlet"). Both come from somebody's story, but different people. I was moving to a different part of people's lives. The first one ("A Glimpse of Scarlet") was a marriage from the inside. The second one — that's over. I was exploring what happens after. Her boyfriend has a different view of marriage. How will Sarah use that? Will it be relevant to her life? This notion of connections — they're so confusing, so unknowable.

TG: From what writers can the audience expect to hear you read, at the SPACE Gallery reading? And what unites these authors?

RR: I'll be reading excerpts from (or among) Alice Munro, W.G. Sebald, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Beattie, and J.M. Coetzee. What draws me to them is a combination of emotional engagement and intellectual depth.

TG: What book on your shelves would surprise us?

RR: Tana French, an Irish mystery writer.

TG: What's the best thing you've read lately?

RR: Right now I am, like so many other people, reading "My Struggle" (a six-part autobiography by Karl Ove Knausgard). I'm on Book Two. I've also read Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. She's brilliant.

TG: When did you first realize you'd become a writer?

RR: There wasn't any moment. I always wrote. From the teachers' responses to me, I realized I wrote more than others did. When I was six, I was a writer.

TG: Describe your writing process.

RR: I try to write every day, but life often intrudes. On an ideal day, I get up and don't do anything before I write. I often write while eating breakfast. The environment should be as secluded as possible. I wrote a piece for my New Yorker blog, called "How I Get To Write." I try to maintain absolute silence, and write in a room that has no Internet connection, often with no telephone at all — completely unconnected to the rest of the world. I've trained my family to not interrupt me during that period. I try to just stay in the place that I was in when I first woke up, that state of mind, a dream state where it's easiest to write.

TG: What are your favorite Maine haunts? (Robinson lives in Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island.)

RR: For restaurants, we love Havana in Bar Harbor and Red Sky in Southwest Harbor.

TG: What do you make of the comparison to John Cheever?

RR: That was a quote from a review of "A Glimpse of Scarlet" by Bret Lott. I was deeply honored. I think the analogy was partly because the characters are similar to Cheever — Waspy in an ex-urban world. I also write about similar emotional passages. When I was writing "This is My Daughter," I read the journals of John Cheever over and over.

TG: Discuss your work as president of the Authors Guild.

RR: It's very challenging, especially with the Amazon-Hachette fracas going on. We're concerned by Amazon's tactics, which we think hurt innocent writers, and concerned that Amazon is trying to dominate the market. That seems monopolistic. Copyright is a big concern. That's why we instituted a lawsuit against Google. They make so much of the text available. It has more of an effect on non-fiction than a novel. Their claim is they increase sales, because you can go through Amazon and buy it, but there's no evidence that that's happening.

TG: Which genre do you prefer — the short story or the novel?

RR: I really love the short story form. It's certainly the most demanding of the prose forms — much more demanding than the novel. It has a kind of inner tension that the novel cannot sustain. When I teach it, I tell my students it should be shaped like a fish — move in one direction, nothing extra, with the surface immaculate with each word connected to the next, a perfect, smooth, gleaming surface.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 August 2014 00:45

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