China Middle Schoolers tour Kennebec Technologies

Submitted by Ryan Sweeney

On January 14, China Middle School JMG had the opportunity to tour Kennebec Technologies, in Augusta. Eighth graders walked the shop floor with Shawn Arbour, director, sales and marketing, and Harvey Smith, director of quality, learning about the variety of machinery and jobs. Students then had an in-depth question/answer session with Shawn and Virginia Fletcher, human resources manager. Shawn and Virginia emphasized the importance of soft skills like work ethic, teamwork and cooperation. Student Sydney Laird commented that hearing Shawn and Virginia emphasize that you don’t need to be the smartest person to be successful. Instead, working hard and being committed are most important in terms of success. I feel like I always try to work hard, which gives me confidence that my effort it will pay off.”

Kennebec Technologies prides itself on a safe and professional workplace. Shawn Arbour added, “I think it’s a valuable experience for both the students and Kennebec Technologies. Kennebec gets to explain and show off to the next generation what we do every day and how it applies to the world we live in. The students get to see what’s out there in the real world and get exposure to a manufacturing environment first hand. It also gives them the opportunity to ask us questions about the work place that we don’t always see from our perspective.” It was a valuable opportunity for all involved.

Ryan Sweeney is JMG Specialist at China Middle School.

Kennebec Historical Society to present “Lost Indian Tribes of Western Maine”

Hopelessly caught between the colonial aims of several European nations, primarily England and France, Maine’s native population never stood a chance. Dozens of tribes in western Maine were decimated by an endless series of war, disease, trauma, and displacement from their homelands. Their cultural presence has been lost to the world; their histories are told by white men. This presentation locates the tribes along western Maine rivers and identifies the forces that sealed their fates. Learn of the names of Wawenocks kidnapped by George Weymouth and Capt. Henry Harlow, of the murder of Squanto, and of the western Maine Indians who were tricked into capture at Dover, New Hampshire, and later imprisoned, hanged, or sold into slavery never to be heard from again.

Our KHS speaker, Peter Stowell, grew up in Andover and Bethel. Educated at Gould Academy, the University of Maine, and Tulane University in New Orleans, he was entranced early by the majesty of Oxford County’s mountains and rivers and began exploring its history and geography as a child. He is now focused on recovering cultural information long lost to present generations through assiduous research in Maine’s defunct newspapers, official state and federal directories and reports, and informed sources. For his presentation to the Kennebec Historical Society, Stowell has collected information on Maine’s Indians from more than 100 sources, some of them dating back to the early 1600s and most of them dating before 1900.

This KHS presentation is free to the public (donations gladly accepted). The presentation will be followed by some light refreshments and take place at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 19, at Hope Baptist Church, located at 726 Western Avenue, in Manchester.

Two local graduates receive Maine Dental Association scholarship

Two local graduates were selected to receive the 2019 Alva S. Appleby Scholarship from the Maine Dental Association Charitable Foundation.

Jenna Fongemie, a graduate of St. Dominic Academy, in Auburn, who attends the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and Stephanie Watson, a graduate of Cony High School, in Augusta, who attends the University of New England College of Dental Medicine, were two of 14 students that were selected for the scholarship.

Each of the students was awarded $3,500. To be considered for the annual Appleby Scholarship, a student must be from the state of Maine, have completed their first year of dental school, and be currently enrolled in a dental school accredited by the American Dental Association.

Fongemie is the daughter of Jeffrey and Joline Fongemie of Augusta, and Watson is the daughter of Thomas and Lisa Beeckel of Augusta.

“Fighting Mental Health Stigma” and “Living with Depression” presentations set for Augusta and Waterville in coming weeks

Free presentations on the topic of improved mental health will be offered by parishes in Augusta and Waterville in the coming weeks. All are welcome to attend either presentation.

As part of its ongoing “Coffee and Conversation” series, the St. Michael Parish Social Justice Commission will sponsor a presentation and discussion on “Fighting Mental Health Stigma.” The session will be held on Thursday, January 23, at 7 p.m., in St. Monica Hall, on 5 Kendall Street, in Augusta.

St. Michael parishioners Emily Dowdell and Andrew Phinney, both professionals in the mental health field, will lead the discussion. For more information, contact the parish at (207) 623-8823 or St.Michael@portlanddiocese.org. You can also visit the parish’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/StMichaelMaine.

Corpus Christi Parish, in Waterville, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon, in Winslow, will co-host “Living with Depression” on Sunday, January 26, from 2 p.m., to 3:30 p.m. in the hall of Notre Dame Church, on 116 Silver Street, in Waterville.

Marc Sirois, a parishioner of Corpus Christi and the manager of outpatient behavioral services for MaineGeneral Medical Center, will discuss the causes and treatments of depression as well as strategies for living with depression and supporting those who do. For more information, call (207) 873-4512 or email csjsoflyon.maine@gmail.com.

For more information about these and other special events occurring in the Diocese of Portland, visit the special events section of the diocesan website at www.portlanddiocese.org.

“Manufacturing Augusta: The Cotton Mill Fire and the Breaching of the Edwards Dam” local history presentation at Lithgow Public Library

On Wednesday, January 22, at 6:30 p.m., the Lithgow Public Library, in Augusta, will host “Manufacturing Augusta: The Cotton Mill Fire and the Breaching of the Edwards Dam,” presented by the Heritage Center at Mill Park. The event is free and open to the public.

This is the fifth in the series of presentations on local manufacturing history by the Heritage Center at Mill Park. Come learn about the rich local history of industrial Augusta in this event spotlighting the massive fire at the Bates Manufacturing, Edwards Division cotton mill in 1989 and the breaching of the Edwards Dam in 1999. Jan Michaud, founder of the Heritage Center at Mill Park, will share the video interviews and footage, concluding with a brief discussion.

Lithgow Library is located at 45 Winthrop Street, in Augusta. For more information, please call the library at (207) 626-2415 or visit our website at www.lithgowlibrary.org.

Kennebec Historical Society receives $5,000 trust grant

The Kennebec Historical Society has received a $5,000 grant from the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust to catalog the society’s growing collection, buy archival supplies and replace an aging computer. The society will use the grant to pay two interns who will address the backlog of donated materials and to purchase the protective archival boxes and folders necessary to properly preserve documents, photographs, scrapbooks, maps, manuscripts, books, and ephemera.

The Portland-based Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust was established in 1988 by Joan Morton Kelly and her mother, Mildred Duncan Morton, to facilitate their philanthropic activities, which include educational programs, cultural projects, historic preservation projects and environmental initiatives. The trust considers grants for public programming, capital expenses, and, in some circumstances, operating support, according to its website.

“I’m very pleased and excited that this grant will help assist KHS in preserving, cataloging, and digitizing the society’s collection of Kennebec County history,” said Patsy Crockett, president of the Kennebec Historical Society. She added, “Researchers will be more inclined to find what they are looking for if more items are cataloged.”

Each year, KHS accessions about 200 donations or purchases. An accession can contain from one to thousands of items. Many collections contain hundreds of items that have not been fully cataloged beyond a brief description. The grant provides funds to pay interns who will reduce or eliminate the backlog of donated materials, create more searchable items in the database, and therefore provide better results for researchers. A new computer will be purchased to supplement the society’s goal of replacing computers on a five-year cycle. Indirectly, the grant will allow KHS to continue to offer its free monthly historical programs and continue the production of its bi-monthly newsletter for members.

For more information, please contact Scott Wood, the society’s administrative director, at 622-7718.

JMG’s Giving Tree receives gift

Dakota Hoffman, left, and Kevin Pelletier with all gifts. (contributed photo)

JMG’s annual Giving Tree at China Schools received a generous gift from the Dunkin’ on Western Ave in Augusta. Kelsey Morin, a China Middle School parent and manager at Dunkin organized the efforts. Kelsey added, “Each year my team and I give up all our tips for a week and ask customers to donate change to help us get Christmas presents for people in need. We set a goal of $600 and came out at $606. All of the money was spent on gifts for China Schools Giving Tree.”

Giving Tree gifts with Kelsey Morin, manager at Dunkin’

Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund receives grant

The Augusta Nature Education Center was recently awarded a $3,000 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund. This enabled the Nature Center to enhance visitorsʼ experience by replacing boardwalks, installing new signage, and improving and updating the trail map.

The Center is managed and co-owned by the Augusta Nature Club, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Nature Center is comprised of 179 acres of quiet woods, beautiful fields of wildflowers, ponds, granite quarries (which supplied the stones for the downtown Federal Building), a brook, and five miles of trails. Access is free and open to the public during daylight hours 365 days a year for non-motorized activities such as walking, jogging, biking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, photography, birding and nature watching.

Because of its unique location, within a mile of Augusta and adjacent to Cony High School and residential areas, it is used by local schools as part of their Physical Education and Science studies. The two mile running track is used by cross country teams for their meets and is available to all.

Operating since the 1960s, the Nature Center is a true gem and is often referred to as Augustaʼs “diamond in the rough.”

For more information, or to download a trail map, please visit the website at augustanaturecenter.org or find them on Facebook at Augusta Nature Education Center.

Kennebec Historical Society to hear from Jeffrey Ryan on the hermit Jim Whyte

When Jim Whyte settled outside the slate mining town of Monson, Maine, in 1895, people hardly knew what to make of him. And almost 130 years later, we still don’t. A world traveler that spoke six languages fluently, Whyte came to town with sacks full of money and a fierce desire to keep to himself. It was clear that Whyte was hiding from something – enough to make even the FBI to eventually come looking. But even the Feds couldn’t imagine how Whyte, who lost every penny he had when World War I broke out, amassed another fortune before he died. Based on the true story, Hermit follows one man’s quest to discover all he can about Whyte’s secret life before it’s too late.

Jeffrey Ryan

KHS speaker, Maine based author, and photographer Jeffrey Ryan has a contagious passion for exploring the outdoors, particularly on foot. Jeff has hiked thousands of miles including his first “trip of a lifetime,” a 6-1/2-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1985, Jeff began “section hiking” the Appalachian Trail with a childhood friend, a journey that would take 28 years to complete and culminated in his first book, Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America’s trail. Intrigued by the question of how the legendary trail came into being, he researched and wrote his second book, Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery and the Rivalry that Built the Appalachian Trail. His latest book, a historical novel entitled, Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte, is centered in Monson, Maine, on the Appalachian Trail. When he is not researching and writing, Ryan explores the backroads of the USA and Canada in his vintage 1985 VW camper.

The Kennebec Historical Society January Presentation is co-sponsored by the Maine State Library and is free to the public (donations gladly accepted). The presentation will be followed by some light refreshments and take place on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, at 6:30 p.m., at the Maine State Library, located at 230 State Street, in Augusta.

Maine politics: A conversation with five local legislators

(photo by Eric Austin)

This is the first of a three-part series written by Eric W. Austin.

(The following does not necessarily constitute the opinions of The Town Line staff or its board of directors.)

by Eric W. Austin

Sometimes the noise from Washington is so loud, it drowns out what’s going on right here in Maine. A few months ago, the Maine Legislature wrapped up their first regular session with a final vote on a two-year state budget. So, with legislators on recess until January, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with them to discuss their thoughts on the recent legislative session.

In my research for this series of articles, I sat down with five Maine state legislators, including Senator Matt Pouliot, representing District 15 (Augusta, China, Oakland, Sidney and Vassalboro); and representatives Catherine Nadeau (Winslow and part of Benton), Bruce White (Waterville), Justin Fecteau (Augusta), and Richard Bradstreet (Vassalboro, Windsor, Somerville and part of Augusta). I thank each of these public servants for spending the time to answer my questions, and for their consent to have the interview recorded so I could provide accurate quotations.

This first article will look at some of the accomplishments of the last legislative session, with subsequent articles focusing on other issues that came up in our discussions, such as: the biggest challenges facing Maine over the next few decades, the impact of social media on local politics, and the state of partisanship in Augusta (it’s not as bad as you think!).

Maine’s first regular legislative session generally runs from January to June (in 2019, it ran a bit late as budget talks dragged into July). This first session is where the majority of bills are proposed and voted on and the all-important two-year budget is drawn up, debated and signed. Any bills not voted on during this first year may either go away or – if they have been specially authorized – they may be carried over into the second year, called the second regular session.

The second regular session will begin in January 2020, but only runs until about April. Although the legislature won’t have a full budget to contend with, it may still have supplemental budgetary items on which to vote, and the governor also has authority to submit additional bills for them to consider.

Justin Fecteau

By anyone’s estimation, 2019 was a busy legislative session. It was the kind of session that left an impression on freshman representative Justin Fecteau of Augusta, who sits on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “I think we nearly broke the State House capacity,” he told me at Huiskamer Coffee House on Water Street, in Augusta, a business he runs with his wife, Grace, when he’s not teaching German at Maranacook Community High School.

“Twenty-one hundred bills were submitted for a six-month legislative session,” he said. “We were putting a lot on the people that work in the advisors office.” The legislative advisors office is a nonpartisan service in state government which helps legislators turn their ideas into legal text.

Catherine Nadeau

I asked Catherine Nadeau, a representative from Winslow who is serving her fourth and final term before retiring from the House in 2020, what legislative accomplishments she was most proud of from the last year. “We provided $130 million [in] property tax relief,” she responded. “That’s what we accomplished this year. We increased the Homestead Exemption by $5,000, [from $20,000] to $25,000. We expanded eligibility for the Property Tax Fairness Credit.” She also mentioned the inclusion of an additional 800 seniors under Maine’s Drugs for the Elderly program and the recent MaineCare expansion. She finished by saying, “This is what we got done, and we still have a surplus.”

Matt Pouliot

Senator Matt Pouliot, who also supported increasing the Homestead Exemption, recognizes the property tax burden on Mainers, especially for low income or fixed income residents. He actually wanted to raise the Homestead Exemption even higher. “I had a bill in to increase it to $50,000 with full reimbursement from the state,” he said, “because we are all hearing from our constituents: property taxes are a challenge for us – especially folks who are those baby boomers just getting into retirement, living on a fixed income. Even if their home is paid for, that property tax bill keeps going up and up and up, and it makes it more difficult for them to live on a fixed income.”

Bruce White

Bruce White, a freshman representative from Waterville, was particularly proud of the legislature for increasing the percentage of municipal revenue sharing this year. Municipal revenue sharing is a way of reimbursing cities which pay a larger percentage of state taxes.

“Cities like Waterville, where a lot of commuters come in during the day – you have the hospitals and colleges and stuff – [so] we have more strain on our city,” Representative White explained. “We need more fire safety, and police safety, and [the increase in municipal revenue sharing] helps us.

“It got decreased over the years,” he said. “It was down as low as two percent – it was supposed to be five [percent]. Waterville, for instance, in the last ten years, has lost – because it got reduced – about $1.1 to $1.2 million a year on average that we used to generate.”

The level of revenue sharing is always a tug of war between the state and city governments.

White continued, “We increased it from two percent to three percent starting in fiscal year 2020. For Waterville, that was $670,000 they received more than last year. That’s a big deal. That’s almost a mil right in Waterville. That helps our elderly, low income, middle class – everybody. That was a big success. The following year it goes up to 3.75 percent, so we’re on our way up to get it back to where it was originally.”

Despite the additional services delivered to Mainers like the expansion of MaineCare to benefit the state’s seniors and the increase in municipal revenue sharing, which will return more money back to local communities, both representatives White and Nadeau pointed to a surplus at the end of the last fiscal year and a growing Budget Stabilization (or “rainy day”) Fund.

The state’s accounting can be a bit tricky to untangle, especially since this particular subject is partial to a great deal of political spin, but essentially, the last fiscal year, ending June 30, saw a surplus of approximately $168 million, meaning this was the amount by which state revenues exceeded state expenditures. For some comparison, the state’s surplus from the previous two-year budget, in 2017, was $110.9 million. Since Maine is a state that requires a balanced budget by law, some surplus at the end of the year is expected.

The budget surplus is only part of the story, however. Also important is what the government decides to do with that surplus. This year, legislators rolled $139.2 of the $167.8 million back into the new budget, leaving $28.1 million of actual surplus. After a small amount (about $6 million) was set aside for several high priority requirements, including operating capital, the governor’s contingency account, the FAME loan insurance reserve, and state retiree health insurance, the remaining surplus, about $22.1 million, was divided according to an 80/20 split, with the largest portion, $18.1 million, deposited into the Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as the “Rainy Day Fund.” This is the state savings account meant to protect Maine from budget shortfalls in case of an unexpected recession or other statewide emergency. According to Maine’s Department of Administration and Financial Services, the total balance of our Budget Stabilization Fund, including this year’s deposit, is now at $236,904,105.

The other 20 percent of the remaining surplus, or about $4.5 million, was deposited into the Property Tax Relief Fund. This is a new fund created during the most recent legislative session, and replaces an account originally set up by the LePage administration simply called the Tax Relief Fund. In previous years, 20 percent of the state’s surplus was deposited into this fund with the intention that, when the fund reached a certain balance, it would trigger a permanent 0.2 percent reduction in the state income tax for all Maine residents. (The fund has never reached those specified limits, and so no reduction in the income tax rate has ever actually been triggered.)

However, this year the legislature made two changes to that earlier policy. First, the former Tax Relief Fund was combined with several other funds and renamed the Property Tax Relief Fund. It’s still fed through deposits of 20 percent of the state’s budgetary surplus, however the methodology which triggers tax relief for Mainers has been significantly changed. Instead of activating a permanent reduction in Maine’s income tax after reaching a specified balance, it will now trigger a rebate of at least $100 for Maine homeowners who have applied and qualified for the Homestead Exemption, once the fund has a sufficient balance to cover such a rebate. That limit was reached this year, so many of you should be receiving $100 checks in the mail by next March.

The change in how the tax relief is triggered is important because the old rules rewarded tax relief based on the level of a resident’s income, with higher income residents receiving a larger benefit than those on the lower end of the income scale. In contrast, under the new rules, all eligible homeowners collect the same $100 rebate regardless of income, although Mainers who are renters – or those who do not qualify for the Homestead Exemption – are left out in the cold.

While Maine’s Budget Stabilization Fund continues to grow, it’s current balance might not paint as rosy a picture as one might think. The two-year budget passed this year in the legislature totaled $7.98 billion, so although $237 million in Maine’s “Rainy Day Fund” might seem like a lot, is it really? Some representatives in Augusta don’t think so.

Richard Bradstreet

“Sooner or later we’re going to have a recession,” explained Vassalboro Representative Richard Bradstreet, who voted against the two-year budget. “It’s going to come and we have to be ready for that.”

Senator Matt Pouliot expressed similar reservations about the recent budget. “This is the first budget that I voted against in my seven years of legislative service,” he said, “because the increase in spending was just so drastic in such a short period of time that I couldn’t get behind it.”

The current budget represents an increase of just over 12 percent above the previous budget of $7.1 billion, signed in 2017. This increase is nearly three times more than the rate of inflation over the same period, although state revenues have also risen during that time. Most of the budget increases come from the expansion of Maine’s Medicaid program, MaineCare; the rise in the percentage of municipal revenue sharing; and increases for education and opioid treatment.

For some expert advice on Maine’s fiscal health, let’s turn to Sarah Austin, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan group, the Maine Center for Economic Policy (and of no relation to the author of this article). She testified earlier this year before the Maine House and Senate as a subject matter expert about the recent tax relief changes and the importance of building up cash reserves to help the state weather future economic storms.

Sarah Austin

“According to the most recent analysis from the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission and Revenue Forecasting Committee,” she stated in her testimony from May, “Maine’s Budget Stabilization Fund contains only 37 percent of the funds necessary to withstand a moderate recession without cutting into baseline spending or raising revenue.”

I asked her via email if she was suggesting Maine still needed to do more to prepare for a possible economic downturn. She replied, “Good fiscal policy isn’t necessarily the rallying cry of the public, but yes, having reserves does impact the speed and adequacy of state responses during recessions. [A Budget Stabilization Fund of] $650 million could get us through a moderate recession without cutting services when they are most critical to supporting the economy.”

So, although the current financial reserves contained in Maine’s Budget Stabilization Fund are at some of their highest levels ever, good fiscal policy suggests they should be significantly higher if Maine is to survive a sudden slump in the economy unscathed.

And that is just one of the challenges Maine is facing as we head toward the middle of the 21st century. Based on my discussions with five local legislators, the next article in this series will take a deeper look at the biggest obstacles to Maine’s continued growth and prosperity: things like an aging workforce and the difficulty of attracting younger families to settle and build their lives here in Maine, the state’s need for skilled tradesmen and how it’s driving up prices for everyone, rising healthcare costs and the increasing strain on Maine’s do-it-all school systems, and much, much more!

Eric W. Austin writes exclusively for The Town Line newspaper about issues important to central Maine. He can be reached at ericwaustin@gmail.com.