LABOR

Unemployment rate dips below 3 percent

For the first time in 40 years, Maine’s unemployment rate has dropped below 3 percent – a sign of an improving economy but also a reminder that the aging state has challenges in finding qualified people to fill vacancies. February’s rate of 2.9 percent was a slight decrease from the previous month and the lowest it has been since 1976, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The number of unemployed Mainers dropped by 3,000 from January levels to 20,000 in February. Gov. Paul LePage trumpeted the low rate as proof that his administration has been successful on economic matters. Read the story.

State to open investigation of jobless claims system

The Government Oversight Committee has voted 8-2 to take up an investigation into the bungled implementation of the Labor Department’s new unemployment system and accusations that claims documents and pleas for help were ordered destroyed by top management. Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, co-chairman of the joint Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development spoke Friday morning before the Government Oversight Committee describing what he has heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department and asked the committee to support the launching of an investigation into the department and into the Office of Information Technology. Fecteau formally requested the oversight committee launch an investigation Thursday in a letter, in which he stated that he and Sen. Shenna Bellows heard from constituents and whistleblowers within the department, who said morale was low because they were not allowed to help claimants. His letter also states that a former employee at the Office of Information Technology noted that an internal audit warned of faults with the system, known as ReEmployME. Read the story.

GENERAL BUSINESS

2017 personal income creeps up

Mainers’ personal income rose 2.7 percent in 2017, the 31st fastest in the country and in the middle of the pack in New England. According to Bureau of Economic Analysis figures released Thursday, personal income in the state rose from $58.7 billion in 2016 to $60.2 billion last year. That put Maine’s income growth in third place in New England, behind New Hampshire and Massachusetts but ahead of Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut. Overall growth in personal income for the country was 3.1 percent for the year. Earnings in Maine were particularly strong in finance and insurance, which contributed 0.19 percentage points to the overall gain; construction, which contributed 0.18 percentage points; professional, scientific and technical services, which added 0.17 percentage points; and accommodation and food services, which also added 0.17 percentage points. Read the story.

HEALTH CARE

CMHC opens new facility with Mass General

Less than a year after Central Maine Healthcare shut down its urgent care center in Auburn, the health system is opening one in Topsham. Largely housed in the former Best Buy on Topsham Fair Mall Road, the 44,000-square-foot facility will include not only Central Maine Healthcare’s urgent care, but also a cancer treatment center from New England Cancer Specialists, an imaging center from Shields Health Care Group, a lab from CMHC and a specialty clinic space where patients can see CMHC specialists and use “telemedicine” to get help from doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital. It will be called the Topsham Care Center. The Lewiston-based health care group plans to open more such centers — after-hours care coupled with a lab, radiology and some kind of specialty care — in other places in Maine in years to come. Read the story.

REAL ESTATE & CONSTRUCTION

Home sales increase in volume and price

Sales of existing single-family homes in Maine increased by about 6 percent in February compared with a year earlier, and the median sale price was up 8 percent, the Maine Association of Realtors said. Its listing service, Maine Listings, reported Wednesday that 822 homes changed hands in February statewide, an increase of 5.9 percent from February 2017. The median price for homes sold reached $194,450, an 8 percent increase from a year earlier when it was $180,000. Prices for home sales in Cumberland County handily beat the state median. In that county, the median home sale price in February was $289,000. By contrast, Aroostook County saw a slight decrease in price to $90,000. According to the National Association of Realtors, sales of existing single-family homes nationwide were up 1.8 percent in February from a year earlier, and the national median sale price of $243,400 was up 5.9 percent. Read the story.

ENERGY

Regulators to open formal probe of high electric bills

The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted Tuesday to launch a full investigation into Central Maine Power’s billing system after a preliminary, three-week inquiry failed to reveal why more than 1,000 CMP customers received inexplicably high utility bills this winter. The broader probe will be conducted in tandem with an inquiry by the PUC’s staff, which has been requesting and studying aspects of CMP’s billing, meter and customer service data. That ongoing discovery effort will be combined with what’s known as a management audit, which will involve hiring at least one outside consultant to conduct a technical review of meter and billing operations. No precise timeline was given to conclude the investigation. But the need to issue a request for proposals, hire an expert and conduct the audit means that the process is likely to take several months. Read the story.

USDA awards loan for solar project

A division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is awarding a $1.5 million loan to help offset the cost of developing solar power at Brunswick Landing. USDA Rural Development is providing the money through its Electric Loan Program to assist Diversified Communications in paying for the solar farm infrastructure at the former Navy base. The program provides capital to maintain, upgrade and modernize rural electric infrastructure, according to a statement from the federal agency. Portland solar company ReVision Energy installed over 4,500 photovoltaic panels at Brunswick Landing, its largest solar installation to date in Maine. The 1.5-megawatt project is already online. Read the story.

MEDIA

Press Herald owner to acquire two more dailies

Reade Brower, who already owns most of Maine’s daily newspapers and many of its weeklies, announced Friday he will add to his holdings with the acquisition of The Times Record of Brunswick and the Journal Tribune of Biddeford, as well as the Mainely Media weekly publications. Brower, who lives in Camden, owns MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, the Coastal Journal in Bath and the things-to-do website MaineToday.com; the Sun Media Group, which publishes the Sun Journal in Lewiston and several weeklies, including the Forecaster newspapers in Greater Portland; as well as four weeklies in the midcoast. Brower’s company, RFB Enterprises, is acquiring the papers in Brunswick and Biddeford from Sample News Group, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania and publishes papers in six states. The transaction closes April 1. Brower declined to discuss terms of the deal. Read the story.

TRANSPORTATION

DOT: Kittery bridge to open by March 30

The Maine Department of Transportation expects the long-delayed Sarah Mildred Long bridge to open March 30, a week later than a deadline imposed earlier this month. The project, which will connect Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, via Route 1, has been delayed for months. On March 9, Maine transportation officials directed contractor Cianbro Corp. to have the bridge ready to open by March 23, but then gave the company another week to comply because of inclement weather. The Maine Department of Transportation website now says the bridge is expected to open March 30. Any remaining work can be finished once it’s open to traffic, it said. Read the story.