December 4, 2010

Maine merchants air grievances

Legislators hear business owners criticize state's regulatory apparatus

Bob Neal, a New Sharon turkey farmer, recently sent an employee to work at his booth at the Fryeburg Fair.

click image to enlarge

BUSINESS: Jennifer Mills, of Pittston Academy Grant, and owner of Historic Pittston Farm, addresses small business tax laws with Maine legislators during a forum to discuss business regulations, taxes and labor at the Skowhegan Community Center on Friday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

IN ATTENDANCE

• Somerset County legislators at Skowhegan listening session: Reps. Dean Cray, R-Palmyra; Larry Dunphy, R-Embden; Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield; Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade; Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan; and John Picchiotti, R-Fairfield; Sens. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, and Rod Whittemore, R-Skowhegan.

• Franklin County legislators at UMF listening session: Sens. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls; Reps. Russell Black, R-Wilton; Lance Harvell, R-Farmington; Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, and Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls; and Dan Demeritt, communications director for Gov.-elect Paul LePage.

 

THOUGHTS?

Do you have more ideas about how to aid business development? Contact the Somerset Economic Development Corporation in Skowhegan at 474-0166 or jvbatey@myfairpoint.net.

Neal said he was shocked to find out that a state health inspector had written the employee up for not wearing a hair net, especially because the man had no hair.

"Here it was, two demerits for a bald man not wearing a hair restraint," he said.

It was one of the many stories area business owners shared during two separate listening sessions Friday, one at the Skowhegan Community Center with newly sworn in legislators from Somerset County, another at the University of Maine at Farmington with newly sworn in lawmakers from Franklin County.

Whether told by a turkey farmer, manufacturer or health care administrator, all of the examples seemed to share a common thread: Stop punishing businesses and start helping them.

"The entire attitude is punitive," said Neal, referring to the state's approach to regulating businesses.

Many of the business people expressed frustration with unfair and confusing rules that keep them from succeeding, and they told legislators what needs to change in order to make Maine an attractive place to do business.

On the UMF campus, a paper mill manager said the state's unfriendly business atmosphere recently led his company to look at investing elsewhere.

Marc Connor, manager of Verso Paper's mill in Jay, blamed the complicated and costly regulatory process for possibly driving a $40 million expansion out of state.

The company is looking at investing the money, but it went to its plants in other states because the process is more "clear and easy" there, he said.

A company has to get an attorney to represent its interests through the regulatory process here, Connor said, and Maine is constantly changing rules for things like wastewater discharge permits, which makes it difficult for businesses to plan for future growth.

Other business people from the area's natural resource industries called for changes to environmental regulation and general oversight decisions.

Laws meant to curb pollution are being applied without considering the type of industry, and this creates unnecessary permits that hinder progress, according to Petr Smetanka, president of Stratton Lumber.

Rules are written for lumber companies as if they were mining operations, Smetanka said, but many of the chemicals occur naturally in trees and should not be regulated the same way.

The laws are "lumping paint thinner together with pine trees," said Smetanka.

"If there is no problem, why should you regulate something in the first place," he said.

While some of the regulations involve federal standards, Smetanka said, many environmental rules take this broad approach.

Along with other lumber industry officials, Smetanka also asked legislators to rethink labor laws that increase the cost to bring in workers from Canada. The industry supports hiring local people, but the training process is not keeping up with the demand for labor and requires Canadian labor to fill spots, he said.

At the Skowhegan Community Center, business owners and town officials cried for less regulation surrounding businesses, but one Skowhegan woman had a creative idea for what the state government could do more of: Help farms accept food stamps from customers.

When state officials at the Department of Health and Human Services provide people with food stamps, they should tell them what farm stands and farmers' markets will accept them, said Sarah Smith, owner of Grassland Organic Farm and market manager of the Skowhegan Farmers' Market. The government could also streamline the process required for farms to accept food stamps, she said.

Greg Dore, Skowhegan's road commissioner, summed up what many people at the forum emphasized: "The regulating agencies really need some common sense."

For example, he said, when he takes the town's trucks for their yearly inspection, they won't pass if a seat cover is torn. The vehicle service industry is highly regulated, he said, to the point of being "outrageous."

Ann Mefferd, who owns One Drop Farm in Cornville with her husband, said the regulations surrounding labeling meat products is confusing and that different officials have provided her with different answers. "I'm not asking for less regulation; I'm asking for consistent regulation," she said.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, agreed with most of the comments in the room and added that it costs 10 percent more to do business in Maine on average than other states. "We have become ruled by unaccountable bureaucrats," he said.

Skowhegan Town Manager John Doucette cautioned legislators against acting hastily. "It took 40 years to do what we've done. Don't try to do it in two months," he said.

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