LEWISTON — Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday counseled city residents fearful after a week of dangerous fires to keep calm and carry on.
"You take one step at a time, and move forward," LePage said during a visit to the city. "These are disaster times and you do the best you can do with what you have. The encouraging thing is that there are a lot of people willing to help."
LePage walked with Lewiston city officials, including Mayor Robert Macdonald, City Administrator Ed Barrett and police, fire and city staff, on a tour of the sites of three major fires within a week in downtown Lewiston.
LePage said he had little sympathy for those accused of starting the fires. Police have arrested Brody Covey, 12, of Lewiston in the April 29 fire that destroyed buildings at 105-111 Blake St. and 172 Bates St.
A second 12-year-old has been charged with setting fires late Friday that burned four buildings on Pierce and Bartlett streets. The court has declined to release that boy's name until his arraignment on May 13.
No arrests had been made Tuesday in the most recent fire on Bartlett and Horton streets Monday morning.
"They ought to be put away," LePage said. "Do they realize how much devastation they've caused? I mean, I've been on the street at (11 years old), and you know what you are doing. I'm sorry, but those 12-year-olds need to be handled to the fullest extent of the law."
LePage said he was going back to meet with state agencies to see what kind of help was available for the city, but he doubted there would be much money. He said he planned to quiz legislators to find out whether money was available to help fire victims.
"If there is discretionary funding available, I haven't found any," LePage said.
However, Lewiston lawmakers said the governor has the authority under state law to allocate as much as $350,000 from his emergency contingency fund. The governor could, in consultation with the state budget officer, allocate up to $750,000 from this fund.
“We hope the governor will use his authority to release these funds today to help a community in need,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.
“We are urging him to declare this situation an emergency and to access all state and federal funds," Rotundo said. "The Legislature created the governor's contingency fund for emergency scenarios just like this.”
The people of Lewiston need help, Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said.
"Hundreds of people have lost everything and are homeless, and if this doesn't qualify as an emergency, then I don't know what does," Craven said. "If the governor has access to any funding, it needs to be released now to help these people get their lives back together."
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett later in the day released a statement affirming that the governor has the discretion to spend up to $300,000 per year on emergencies. So far, he has spent $18,000 on domestic violence electronic monitoring, she said.
She said the rest of the fund has not been spent and LePage hasn't made any decisions for further funding.
Bennett said L.L. Bean has given $50,000 to the Lewiston Fire Department Relief Fund and an anonymous donor has agreed to match donations, up to $10,000, until Friday.
The governor sees Lewiston as a generous community where people and businesses are rising to the challenge, Bennett said.
She said the governor met today with Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew about extending the 60-month limit on benefits for fire victims.
LePage is “committed to working with city officials to lessen the burden,” Bennett said. In the short term, the governor is waiting to see how much aid the community and businesses raise before releasing additional funding.
In another release later Tuesday, Maine Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Waldo, scolded Democrats for asking the governor for financial aid for the city.
“The problem with that approach is that, currently, we don’t know the full extent of the damage from these three fires and the associated costs,” Thibodeau said in a prepared statement. “We do know that the damage is extensive and people are hurting from it. But the last thing we should do is turn this into a political football. That is not helpful to the victims."
The three fires caused more than $2.5 million in damages, destroyed 77 apartments in nine buildings and left more than 200 people homeless.
Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau told the governor during his tour of the fire scenes that the city planned to get "very aggressive" downtown, particularly with out-of-state landlords. Many of the old buildings need attention or they need to come down, Nadeau said.
"We can't risk loss of life," LePage said. "Hopefully, (the worst) is over."