The governor already has withheld $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds that have yet to be committed, but now has frozen the program’s existing cash on hand as well
By Eric Russell, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Gov. Paul LePage has frozen operational spending within Land for Maine’s Future as his administration prepares to release a report assessing the program that distributes funds for conservation projects.
Approximately 30 applicants who are seeking funds received a letter this month from Land for Maine’s Future Director Sarah Demers informing them that funds for legal costs and other expenses associated with conservation projects are unavailable.
“This letter is to inform you that at this time LMF funds are not available for acquisitions and legal review of due diligence items necessary to complete your project,” the letter reads.
Demers said Monday that although she received no written directive from the governor’s office to withhold operation funds, the request did come from LePage through her boss, Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb.
The hold on funding is the latest effort from the LePage administration to assert control over the Land for Maine’s Future program, which exists to distribute conservation bonds that have been approved by Maine voters. Since the program formed in 1987, Land for Maine’s Future has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres across the state. The majority of those lands were working forests, farmlands or commercial waterfronts.
LePage already has withheld $6.5 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and another $5 million approved in 2012. Now, he has taken control over the remaining $2 million or so in current cash on hand, which was supposed to help fund the more than 30 projects that have been approved.
Among those projects is the conservation of 215 acres around Knight Pond and Blueberry Hill in Cumberland and North Yarmouth and the 164-acre Howard Hill project across from the State House in Augusta.
Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the Kennebec Land Trust that is working on the Howard Hill conservation, has said the the project is in limbo because of the governor’s actions and the trust has been debating whether to borrow money to keep the project on track.
Depending on how long the current freeze lasts, other projects could also be at risk.
Land for Maine’s Future board members have expressed frustration with the administration for not being able to do their jobs. At a meeting in July, three board members – all members of LePage’s cabinet – were absent and the board had no quorum to vote on agenda items.
The next board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday. Demers said she experts a quorum to be present.
In addition to discussing the latest hold on funding, board members will hear from Jonathan Labonte, director of the governor’s Office of Policy and Management. Labonte, over the last few months, has led an effort to review LMF’s operation at LePage’s request.
LePage already has acknowledged that he was holding back bonds to gain political leverage for his plan to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands to help pay for residential energy efficiency programs.