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County residents worry as shutdown looms

HOULTON, Maine — Concerns about finances and the delivery of critical services were on the minds of many Aroostook County residents Friday as they prepared for a looming state shutdown.

Although a special panel endorsed a budget package Thursday night, Gov. Paul LePage refused Friday to sign it, essentially assuring a partial shutdown of state government at midnight.

The governor said that he primarily objected to the overall monetary total for the budget package, which is around $7.1 billion, and that it proposes raising the state’s lodging tax from 9 percent to 10.5 percent.

That was bad news for a number of people in Aroostook County.

Sharon Henderson of Houlton said she was looking forward to a visit from several cousins and their family members from Rhode Island this weekend and over the 4th of July. Now, she doubts they are coming.

“Just the word ‘shutdown’ turns tourists away,” she said. “This is so upsetting. Who wants to come to a state on vacation if you aren’t really sure you’ll be able to do everything that you want? My relatives said that unless things change, they’ll likely just take a trip to Boston and come later in the summer.”

If a shutdown occurs, the governor’s office said that essential services such as Maine State Police, the Maine Warden Service and the Department of Corrections will continue to operate. The decision, however, will shutter all Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices across the state making applying for a driver’s license or taking a license exam impossible. Online services will continue, so residents will be able to renew licenses. Online permits for overweight or oversized vehicles will be unavailable.

The absence of permits was concerning to Heidi Wells of Presque Isle, who said she “started to worry” after reading of that consequence in the newspaper.

“I am just afraid that you are going to get someone out there who just decides to risk it and drive an overweight vehicle, because they need to keep to their trucking schedule,” she said. “I mean, what if that causes an accident that seriously injures and kills someone?”

James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, said that “almost all University of Maine System operations will continue, as the UMS FY 2018 budget, which funds our operations starting July 1, was passed by the UMS Board of Trustees at its May meeting and is separate from the state budget.”

“We continue to review whether any university activities will be directly affected,” he continued in a statement. “We will provide more information directly to any employees whose activities are solely and directly funded by a contract with the State of Maine or otherwise impacted.”

The courts in Aroostook County also will scale back their schedule as approximately half of Maine’s 36 courthouses will close if there is a shutdown of state government. District Courts in Houlton and Fort Kent will be the only courthouses open on July 3 and July 5, Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou will be open on July 6, and Presque Isle District Court will be open on July 7. Staff will limit services, however. The clerks’ offices in the designated courthouses will be minimally staffed, entry screening will be in place where possible, and judges will be available in the designated open courthouse in each county.

Designated criminal matters, such as murder trials, grand jury proceedings and motions to revoke or amend bail will continue. Courts will also hear civil matters, including protection from abuse and protection from harassment, certain child protection matters and mental health commitment hearings and involuntary treatment proceedings.

On Friday, LePage reaffirmed his previously stated position that he won’t support a biennial budget of more than $7.055 billion.

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