Sun Journal, LewistonSolar Panel Squabbling
Yeah, but how's it going to look?" is a great question before repainting the den, but a feeble interjection when evaluating alternative energy projects, with which looks should be irrelevant. Emphasis on "should be." Yet homeowners who adopt new energy technologies, and companies that emerge to develop them, are still faced with barrages of criticism and complaints from neighbors who say, "Yes, the spirit of the project is laudable, but the fact I can see it from my property is certainly not."
Take poor Laurence Gardner in Scarborough, who has erected ten-foot photovoltaic panels to power his home (at right), only to have his neighbors demand the town council deem them "eyesores" and order their removal. One neighbor said the panels - modern symbols of energy independence and efficiency - could reduce property values by half.
"It's beyond our understanding how anyone would object to a solar-panel house in 2007," Gardner said, according to the Associated Press. "Someone called the panels a 'monstrosity.' But my family and I, we think they're beautiful. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
While ugliness, it seems, is in the eye of the abutters.
This same situation has happened with wind power, as protection of pristine mountain peaks for aesthetic reasons has been was a rallying cry for opponents. And it's occurring already in Wiscasset, where ink on plans for a coal gasification plant is barely dry.
"I'm concerned about the loss of property values for those of us who live nearby," said Dennis Dunbar, of Westport Island, during the first municipal meeting on the project, according to the AP. "The skyline of such a plant, the lights all night, that could reduce the value of my home by up to 50 percent."
Appearance is an unwelcome interloper into important considerations of alternative energy production, as the way a wind turbine, solar panel, or power plant looks is immaterial compared to Maine's, and the nation's, desperate need to develop efficient, inexpensive new forms of delivering energy. Introducing aesthetics into issues where it's irrelevant, however, shows our immaturity as a society to make sacrifices for the good of our economy, culture, and environment. Early adopters, like Gardner, or ambitious developments, like in Wiscasset, should only be evaluated on their merits, or their potential. Not how they look.
Progress isn't always pretty, but neither are rising prices for consumer goods based on escalating energy costs, nor the prospect of continued dependence on foreign energy sources. These alternatives should be enough to convince objectors into saying, "Who cares how it looks."
Emphasis on "should be."
We're still waiting for it to happen.
Maine Sunday Telegram, PortlandKeeping the Bosses Happy
The first rule of any job is don't diss your boss. This seems lost on the Portland School Committee. Recently five members of the committee voted unanimously to go into executive session to discuss how the department could have spent $2.5 million in taxpayer money that it wasn't authorized to have.
The committee members said they wanted to have a frank discussion with three top school department officials about the budget mishap. They justified the closed-door meeting as falling under exceptions in Maine's opening meeting law that allow them to talk in private about personnel matters, including staff duties. It's a stretch to argue that talking about who is supposed to do what with regard to tracking the budget is a sensitive personnel matter, the discussion of which could do undue harm to an employee's reputation.
And, setting all legal arguments aside, there's the simple political math. School Committee members work for the voters. Shutting voters out of a meeting to discuss a matter of concern to them is not a good way to show these "bosses" that you have their interests at heart.
The lack of respect shown for the public interest grew when Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor explained that, as a matter of policy, no notes are taken during School Committee executive sessions. This, she said, was to head off the possibility that the notes would have to be turned over to the public afterward.
Everything the school department does, from setting curriculum to tracking budgets, involves duties to be performed by employees. If the School Committee can go behind closed doors to discuss any matter related to the duties performed by an employee, then any matter could be discussed in secret session.
That's not how the state's open meeting law is intended to work. Going into executive session is supposed to be the rare exception. To do otherwise is to disrespect the very voters for whom all public employees work.
Times Record, BrunswickBudgeting with Confidence
Less than three full weeks after the state's $6.3-billion biennial budget took effect on July 1, Governor John Baldacci's office announced that he will ask the 123rd legislature to approve a supplemental budget when it convenes its second session next January. The request for a supplemental budget arises, Baldacci administration officials say, because the actual surplus from the fiscal year that closed on June 30 falls short of projections.
That sounds familiar, doesn't it?
In March, state officials scurried to fill holes in the last budget and recalibrate their spreadsheets for the current spending plan because the Revenue Forecasting Committee's projections for corporate income tax revenue were about $40 million more optimistic than what the state actually stood to collect. In fact, state revenue projections for at least the past decade have been - to be polite - consistently off the mark, leading more than one wisecracking political observer to suggest that the existing forecasting system be replaced by blindfolded volunteers tossing darts at figures posted randomly on the wall.
Granted, coming up with precise predictions of tax and fee collections, federal aid, and other revenue sources that ebb and flow based on variables beyond the control of those who formulate state budgets borders on the impossible. The state's economist and her aides do the best they can with the tools and information at their disposal, but perhaps it's time to seek a new approach. The legislature's recently impaneled Joint Select Committee on Future Maine Prosperity would do well to include scrutiny of how Maine calculates and handles state government's cash flow in its quest to increase efficiency and remove barriers to innovation in both the public and private sectors.
The legislature left much important work unfinished when it adjourned in late June. Now, the need to hash out a supplemental budget when they return for a shorter second session will further distract lawmakers from such critical matters as putting their school consolidation theories into practice; finding a long-term, sustainable funding mechanism for Dirigo Health; and crafting a plan to reduce the state's almost $3.3 billion unfunded liability for retiring teachers and state employees. Tackling all of those challenges would be made much easier if a more dependable revenue-forecasting system can be implemented. Failing that, lawmakers and the governor would do well to exempt accounting of state government's cash flow from the "optimism" that Baldacci promised would be a benchmark of his second term.
Instead, a conservative baseline more likely to yield pleasant surprises - i.e., larger-than-anticipated surpluses - would help institutionalize a realistic approach to state budgeting and reduce the likelihood that the public - and bond rating houses - would lose even more confidence in state government's ability to manage the people's funds.
Portland Press HeraldSpare the Deer, Shoo the Tick
Lyme disease is no minor illness. If left untreated, it can cause arthritis, nerve damage, and even fatal brain inflammation. But trying to minimize it by killing whitetail deer is not, game experts note, a long-term solution to the problem.
The malady, named after the town in Connecticut where it was diagnosed, is spread by insect bites - specifically, by infected deer ticks. The ticks, as their name indicates, are blood-sucking parasites whose principal hosts are whitetails, though they can also be found on birds, rodents, and dogs. They can bite and infect humans who walk through areas frequented by deer, or who own domestic animals that bring them home.
Found more than a decade ago in isolated places like Monhegan Island, Lyme disease is moving up the coast and inland, with more than a thousand cases in the state. Infections increased 37 percent from 2005 to 2006, from 247 to 338. That has led some disease-control agencies to call for a reduction in the state's deer herd in areas where the infection has spread. In the 1990s, Monhegan eliminated deer there, greatly reducing the number of cases of Lyme.
But nonsporting hunts are unpopular with animal advocates. Also, game managers point out that deer are perfectly capable of rebuilding lost populations in only a few years, because the real limit on herd size is its food supply, not predation. In fact, despite regular hunting pressure, the state's whitetail population has remained constant for years.
Instead, experts advise using an effective repellent, along with wearing long sleeves, long pants, and boots, if walking in fields or woods. Giving domestic animals flea and tick medication is important, as well.
It makes no sense to expend time and money on a "remedy" that offends many and will do little good.
Bangor Daily NewsFailed College Aspirations
In the five years since the Mitchell Institute released its first study on barriers in Maine to postsecondary education, the percentage of high school students who aspire to college has risen - but the percentage who actually attend has dropped. Maine families, business owners, and the students themselves should have a strong interest in seeing this gap closed by helping more students choose higher education, a challenge that mostly does not involve more money.
For instance, in the Mitchell Institute's recently released second edition of "From High School to College: Removing Barriers for Maine Students" (www.mitchellinstitute.org
), researchers note that the greatest influence on college-going rates is academic tracking, with the effect noticed most clearly in the top track. This suggests several things - perhaps most obviously that students who perform well enough academically to be placed in the top tier welcome further academics and that students who struggle are less likely to. But it may also be that students who are in a classroom and peer atmosphere in which postsecondary education is expected raise their expectations about themselves.
Encouraging those expectations is crucial to students' long-term financial security - someone with a bachelor of arts degree earns on average 62 percent more than one with a high-school diploma, worth about a million dollars more over a lifetime of work. In 1950, 60 percent of jobs in Maine were blue collar; now only 25 percent are while the percentage of white-collar jobs has more than doubled and two-thirds of the state's fastest-growing economic sectors require education beyond high school. But only one Maine resident in four holds at least a bachelor's degree, ranking the state thirty-ninth nationally and last in New England.
The purpose of the second barriers report is to examine what keeps students from going on to college and what Maine could do about it. In thousands of telephone and online surveys with students, educators, and parents as well as student interviews at nineteen high schools statewide, the institute staff found an overwhelming number of students (and their parents) with college aspirations, but a substantial number were not taking the steps necessary to lead to college enrollment. One telling statistic: 78 percent of students reported that they believed their parents had a strong understanding of the financial aid process; only 58 percent of parents agreed with that statement.
Colleen Quint, the institute's executive director, says to improve Maine's college-going track record, it must do "several things simultaneously that all reinforce each other, in the schools and increasingly among families." The Mitchell Institute report has recommendations for parents, students, colleges, high schools, elementary and middle schools, and businesses. ("Think of employees as the parents of the next generation's work force and provide them with information and services to ensure that they can effectively help their children prepare for success.")
The encouraging news in the institute's report is that more Maine families are aware of the importance of a college education. Now, they need help to start preparing to make it happen.
Kennebec Journal, AugustaThe Lessons of Mountain Lion sightings
Call it a mountain lion, or call it a cougar, panther, or puma. Whatever you want to call it, the four-legged feline is a remnant of times past in Maine, when caribou and wolves roamed our woodlands, rivers rushed with salmon, the skies were clouded with eagles and osprey, and our coastal islands were colonized by great auks. Those times are, indeed, long past and it has been almost seventy years since the last wild mountain lion was seen - and killed - here in Maine. But there has been a spate of mountain lion reports recently in the state, including one in Sidney, another in Oakland. The latter sighting actually produced a fur sample, while the former only a photograph.
That fur sample is being analyzed for DNA by scientists at Southern Illinois University. And we'll be interested in whether the animal turns out to be a mountain lion - or someone's skinny yellow lab that wandered too far from home. If the DNA proves to be from a mountain lion, it'll be sweet evidence not only of the tenacity of this rugged creature, but a sign that when we drive a species into local extinction, we may not be as good at it as we thought.
Frankly, though, we're less interested in whether the creature was a mountain lion than we are in the very viral quality of the sightings. When one happens, another always seems to follow. Is it because, when we see a legendary beast, we're scared about admitting it for fear of sounding crazy? "Hey, honey, I saw a unicorn today, what do you think about that?" isn't far from "Hey, honey, did you see the mountain lion rooting around in our garbage this morning?" But if someone else does it, well then, by golly, we'll feel free to speak of it, too.
So three cheers for those brave enough to venture out into the world with their mountain lion reports. Even if they're wrong, the stories remind us that, while we live in the midst of great natural abundance here in Maine, our landscape was once even richer than it is today. And our yearning for that time, for the company of the animals that once owned this place, is a powerful thing.