Jerry Poisson works on a sneeze guard for the Lewiston Public Library’s check-out counter in the foyer of the library on Wednesday afternoon. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Just hours after Gov. Janet Mills announced a multi-phase plan to restart the economy, officials in Lewiston and Auburn were scrambling to adjust.

In the days ahead, that means everything from budget planning, staffing, and efforts to assist local businesses, some of which will be allowed to open shortly, and others who seemingly have a long road ahead.

First and foremost, said Mayor Mark Cayer, he’s directing staff to do all they can to help local businesses stay afloat as the governor’s four-stage plan takes the state through August.

Cayer issued a statement late Wednesday aimed at reassuring the local economy, which says the city will be helping to come up “with creative, productive, and safe ways to do business.”

As Mills suggested Tuesday, that could mean allowing local restaurants with limited space to take advantage of street sidewalks for outside dining.

“Things like that is where we’ll have to think outside the box to make it more comfortable for customers,” he said, in order to help businesses “achieve enough volume to stay afloat.”

Cayer said city efforts to support businesses, including new federal grant funding for loans, will continue “during and beyond” the reopening stages laid out by the governor.

“As restrictions are lifted, the city and its partners will dedicate further municipal effort and energy to helping local businesses grow and thrive,” he said. “Thank you for choosing Lewiston as your business home and for contributing to the vitality of our community … We are all in this together as we work toward and adjust to a new normal.”

On Wednesday, officials said they could only plan so much given that the governor’s office was not scheduled to release the official executive order until Thursday.

City Administrator Ed Barrett said his team conducted a staff meeting Wednesday, but that staff also needs to know the “exact perimeters” of the precautions required of city governments and businesses in order to open to the public.

“No immediate actions were taken, but it will give us time between now and early next week to decide what steps we’re going to take,” he said.

Those decisions include when and how Lewiston will reopen City Hall to the public, followed by other city departments. Barrett said opening City Hall is a lot easier from a social distancing perspective than reopening the Lewiston Public Library.

As for the budget, the City Council is set to approve a spending plan for next year that would lower the property tax rate, owing to several cuts and a conservative revenue outlook. Barrett said the governor’s order doesn’t change the budget outlook, given that the city found a way to avoid layoffs.

“With the budget we’re proposing, we have the flexibility to make adjustments if our revenue projections are too pessimistic,” he said. “But, it’s way too early to know how this will work its way through the economy.”

AUBURN

In Auburn, at least one plan was foiled by the governor’s order Tuesday.

At least a portion of city staff, who have been working remotely during the pandemic, was initially scheduled to begin working out of Auburn Hall starting May 4, but according to City Manager Peter Crichton, that is no longer the plan.

“We will not do that now given the orders,” he said Wednesday.

Regarding the governor’s phased plan, Crichton said he recognizes “the difficult situation the governor is in, trying to balance the economic situation with the importance of public health.”

However, he said, the budget will likely take into account “a longer recovery” period. The City Council on Monday gave initial approval to a pared down budget, which adds an “emergency reserve” buffer in the event revenues don’t materialize.

“I think it’s slower than maybe what people had hoped, but she’s trying to look at what public health experts are saying,” he said.

The city has put together a “recovery team” to focus on helping the local economy, led by Marc Gosselin, Auburn’s executive director of Community Partnerships and Sport Tourism.

Auburn has furloughed 41 seasonal or temporary employees in response to the pandemic. When asked Wednesday, Crichton said there is no timeline yet on when those positions will be brought back. He said the city is still only authorizing “essential spending.”

Mayor Jason Levesque, who on Tuesday had called on the governor to end the stay-at-home order by May 4, said Auburn will move forward with an “economic resurgence” plan focused first on construction and rehabilitation.

Levesque said that while he doesn’t agree with “every aspect” of Mills’ plan, he will “help execute a recovery that is thoughtful and considerate of both the personal and economic health of Auburn’s residents and businesses.”

During recent City Council meetings, he has said city staff have been planning economic recovery efforts even as the state continues under a stay-at-home order.

He said Auburn will continue to focus on a “rapid execution” of the recently approved Strategic Plan, with an immediate focus on creating “a commercially viable downtown.”

When asked how the governor’s four stages of reopening the economy will impact that planning, Levesque said, “the stages have no bearing on our economic resurgence plan as our first phase would be focused on construction and rehabilitation, all currently allowable and (according to federal coronavirus relief funding allocation guidelines), encouraged activities.”

“We have to get money flowing through the private sector as soon as possible in order to help stimulate the economy,” he said.

While Levesque said he will make do with a plan he somewhat disagrees with, City Councilor Katie Boss posted a statement Tuesday in support of the governor’s order.

She said while there is “no doubt” the economic impact has been devastating for many, “the choice between supporting our economy and protecting our health is a false one.”

“A healthy workforce is the foundation of a healthy economy and consumers won’t spend money where they don’t feel safe,” she said. “With this clear plan of action we can begin to reopen in a way that protects public health, while also providing support and hope to our residents and businesses.”


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