AUGUSTA — The 10-member Legislative Council voted unanimously Thursday to send the city of Lewiston $30,000 to help some of the nearly 200 people left homeless by three downtown fires last week.
Gov. Paul LePage said earlier this week he would match the $30,000, meaning Lewiston will get $60,000, but it wasn't to be done Thursday because the governor was out of his office, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.
The council, which includes the minority and majority leaders in the House and Senate, as well as the speaker of the House and the Senate president, spent less than 10 minutes making the decision.
The money will come from the Legislature's operating budget and will be distributed as housing vouchers from the city of Lewiston. City officials will determine whom among those left homeless need assistance with a security deposit and possibly a first month's rent payment.
Lewiston's legislative delegation, including Rep. Peggy Rotundo and Sen. Margaret Craven, both Democrats, asked their colleagues for the help. Both thanked the council Thursday.
The funding would be a one-time grant to the city. It requires the city to report back to the Legislature on how the money was spent and how many people were helped.
As of Thursday, several families were still being sheltered at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, after being moved from Lewiston High School.
"Today, I'm glad we worked together to get this money to people who are in real need," Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said. "As Mainers, we are all in this together."
Goodall said the immediate need was great and promised that the Legislature would continue to do what it could to help the city as it worked to recover from the fires.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, assistant minority leader in the Senate, said the council could be proud of its vote.
“This is government at its best," Katz said. "Despite our ongoing fiscal problems in Augusta, leaders of both parties were able to come together to help these people in Lewiston."
Sen. Michael Thibodeau, the Senate's minority leader, said he supported the decision, but he wanted the council to have a future discussion about allocating legislative funds for local emergencies.
“I am glad that we were able to find the funding to assist these individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by these fires," Thibodeau said. "It won’t give them back their homes and belongings, but hopefully it will help them get back on their feet.”
Craven said the funding would help people in the most basic way, by getting them back into permanent shelter.
“People are eager to get their lives back," Craven said. "At this point, they've lost everything. They have nothing. This is a tragedy beyond words and it is our obligation to help people when they are their most vulnerable. At this time of great need, we must all unite and lend a helping hand to our neighbors."
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said state law allows the Legislature to use some of its funding for emergency purposes.
“State leaders have an obligation to step up to help the people of Lewiston during this devastating emergency,” Eves said.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, also said he was pleased the Legislature was able to act quickly to help the city.
"I think it's appropriate we do this in a bipartisan fashion," Fredette said.
Earlier in the week, legislators engaged in partisan wrangling over whether the Legislature or Gov. Paul LePage should provide financial help to Lewiston. Some lawmakers were critical of LePage for not releasing funding from his emergency contingency fund for the fire victims.
Fredette noted that while the governor has about $350,000 in a contingency fund, the Legislature has $4.5 million in carry-over funding that could be a more appropriate source for fire relief.
Fredette said he was discouraged by the attempt to politicize the tragedy.
“A disaster area should never be turned into a political war zone,” Fredette said. “The people of Lewiston need this money more than the Legislature does, and I hope it will be of some assistance to them in their time of need.”
LePage's staff said Thursday that the state and the governor remain committed to helping the city recover and that state resources, including the Department of Health and Human Services, were being drawn on to help the fire victims.
LePage has also been involved in helping set up a United Way fund that's accepting donations for fire victims, Bennett said.
Earlier Thursday, Rotundo said she was disappointed in LePage's earlier decision not to use the governor's emergency contingency funds for the fire victims. Democrats released a list going back to 1997 that showed other governors have used the fund to help with local emergencies or natural disasters including floods, fires and snowstorms.
Rotundo said the Legislature created and funds the governor's contingency because it allows him to react quickly, without a legislative process, to help Mainers in times of need.
"That's exactly why he has that money, and this would have been an appropriate use for that funding," Rotundo said. "Because he was not acting and we needed the money to get into the community as quickly as possible, we asked the Legislative Council to take this up."
Rotundo said she was grateful and pleased with the swift and bipartisan decision by lawmakers to help Lewiston.
"This should never have been political," Rotundo said.
Rep. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, also praised and thank the Legislative Council for its swift action.
"This assistance will help address the enormous need of our neighbors, who have been persevering so bravely in the wake of terrible tragedy,” Libby said.