FARMINGTON — Franklin County commissioners voted Tuesday to revoke support for a proposed transmission line through western Maine  after expressing concerns about the permitting process for New England Clean Energy Connect and hearing a complaint about a flyer encouraging Farmington residents to support the project.

“I know back in October we supported this (Central Maine Power) line, but I think a lot of towns are now removing that support or staying neutral,” said District 1 Commissioner Terry Brann.

Protestors at a Say NO to NECEC Rally in Augusta Sept. 7, 2018. The Franklin County commissioners announced they rescinded their approval of the project at their meeting Tuesday. Portland Press Herald file photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“We’ve found out there was a lot of money offered in Massachusetts and Vermont, but nothing in Maine; so unless CMP comes up with another angle, I personally would like to withdraw our support and just stay neutral.”

District 2 Commissioner Charlie Webster and District 3 Commissioner Clyde Barker also voted to rescind support, making the commission the latest entity to do that or oppose the project.

Others include Jackman, Moose River, West Forks, The Forks, Caratunk, Embden, Wilton and Alna.

The decision Tuesday came after commissioners were presented with an email from the Greater Franklin Development Council in which Executive Director Charlie Woodworth said a flyer recently distributed by Central Maine Power was misleading and contained a statement attributed to GFDC that it did not write.

The flyer, which was distributed to Farmington residents over the weekend and states it was paid for by NECEC, encourages them to vote in support of the project Monday at Town Meeting.

“Facts and statements noted on this flyer are intentionally misleading,” Woodworth wrote in the email, which was read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting. “The author of this flyer has written statements and assigned organization names to these statements inferring that the listed organizations actually made these statements. This is not the case.”

Woodworth, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting, did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment.

A letter written on GFDC letterhead by its previous executive director, Alison Hagerstrom, in July 2017 and posted on the NECEC website does contain the language used in the flyer. John Carroll, a spokesman for CMP, said that letter was the source of the information on the flyer.

 

“Looking at the (email) from Mr. Woodworth, we are distressed he would take that position without even maybe taking the time to call us and ask where that quote came from, because it is in fact a quote from a letter provided by the economic development commission,” Carroll said.

He also said it’s concerning commissioners might have revoked their support for the project based at least in part on Woodworth’s complaint, though Webster said later in the day Tuesday that wasn’t the case.

“The flyer didn’t do it at all,” Webster said. “What happened was when they came to us, we weren’t aware when we gave (support) that they were willing to support the state financially or the county financially. It’s probably our own fault. If we had known at the time we had an opportunity to lower electricity rates or something, we might have had a different opinion.”

Last month, Gov. Janet Mills threw her support behind the controversial project after CMP announced plans to offer $258 million in benefits over 40 years, including $5 million for economic development in Franklin County, $1 million in scholarships at the University of Maine at Farmington and $4 million for vocational schools, scholarships and mathematics and science training in Franklin and Somerset counties.

But Webster said it would have been preferable for CMP to offer lower rates for electricity ratepayers in Maine in exchange for the project being built.

“I don’t like $1 million for this group, $500,000 for another group,” he said. “That’s just buying off folks. To me, if we think it’s good public policy to lower rates for everyone in exchange for this coming through the state, that’s the only way to do it.”

Sandra Howard, a spokeswoman for the group Say NO to NECEC, which opposes the project, praised commissioners’ decision in an email Tuesday.

“They did exactly what elected officials should do: they looked at all the information about how bad this corridor would be, they listened to their voters’ overwhelming opposition to the corridor, and they decided that the corridor is a bad deal for Maine,” Howard wrote. “I urge all of our members to thank the commissioners for making a good decision that will help protect Maine’s environment and economy for generations to come.”

Like Webster, Brann said the flyer didn’t have anything to do with his decision to retract his support. Despite some significant benefits to the area —  the town of Farmington is expected to receive $436,183 in new annual tax payments from the project — Brann said he’s heard from many people who are opposed.

“I haven’t had one person come to me and say this is a good deal for Franklin County,” he said. “So many citizens are opposed.”

Residents in Farmington are scheduled to vote Monday to authorize the Board of Selectmen to send a letter to the Maine Public Utilities Commission stating whether they support, don’t support or have no position on the project.

So-called “intervenors” in the case, which have been approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission as being directly affected by the project, have the right to file letters or the results of votes to be considered by the agency as it makes a decision on permitting. Both the Franklin County commissioners and town of Farmington are intervenors.

However, Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the PUC, said there’s no guarantee that if a town or other entity votes to support or not support the project, it will have the final say on whether it’s built in that community.

“Any input we get will certainly be considered by the commission,” Lanphear said, adding that others who are not intervenors can submit public comments that will be considered in an overall decision. “But there’s no guarantee of what might happen.”

In other news Tuesday, commissioners also held off on making a payment of $6,250 to Western Maine Community Action, saying they wanted to see more proof the county payment would be used to leverage new funds.

In a letter to commissioners March 7, WMCA Housing Program Manager Bill Crandall said that from July 1 to Dec. 31, county funds were used in combination with Maine State Housing Authority funds to support the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Crandall also wrote county money was used to assist seniors with buying supplemental groceries and obtaining community energy funds for families in need.

“I find this really misleading,” Webster said of the letter. “They came here and told us they use the (county) money for salaries. Now they are suggesting without our support they wouldn’t be getting LIHEAP. I find this very misleading and have a problem with the whole approach. I’m not supporting it.”

The commission took no action on the request for payment — which is budgeted for in the county budget — and will be asking Crandall to come speak with them at the next meeting.

Finally, commissioners also approved promoting two part-time employees at the Franklin County Detention Center to fill two full-time vacancies and had preliminary discussions about raises for non-union employees in the 2019-2020 budget.

Webster said he doesn’t think it’s right for county employees to expect a raise every year, and the county already offers better wages and benefits than the private sector.

“It’s just a lot of money,” he said. “Go to all these factories that are closing. There are a lot of people who don’t have a job. We should have some compassion I think (for the taxpayer). The non-union employees here receive higher wages and benefits than most people who live in this county.”

There are currently about 40 non-union workers employed by the county, a number that also includes part-time and stipend employees.

“We shoulder everything,” said Susan Black, the registrar of deeds. “The non-union people always shoulder it. Why is it on the non-union employees so the little old lady who lives in a trailer, her taxes don’t go up?”

Commissioners voted 2-1 to approve a 2 percent raise for non-union employees, though that number could change as budget discussions proceed. Barker was against that number and had earlier made a motion for 3 percent.

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected] 

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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