Monday, April 25, 2005

Senior center gathers steam

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 25, 2005): A Scarborough town councilor is teaming up with local seniors to back a $1 million referendum to build a senior center on the old drive-in property.

The bond would pay for a 5,000-square-foot building that would be constructed on the property named Memorial Park last week.

A draft of the proposed building is expected to be unveiled at a lunch meeting Thursday, May 26, at noon at the Hillcrest Community Center.

At an April 21 joint meeting of two town senior-citizen groups, Senior Series and Senior Voices, Town Council Chairman Jeff Messer offered the seniors a two-acre section of town-owned land, which was recently rejected by a group looking to build a YMCA.

He also said he would “try to gather the support politically on the council to make sure the question gets on the ballot” in November, which would require council action by early September. He estimated the bond would cost 2 or 3 cents on the tax rate.

“I think the time has come for seniors to have a place to call their own,” Messer told the group assembled at Scarborough Downs. He recalled the failure of the 2000 referendum on a community center, which would have included space for senior activities.

“We don’t have a senior center, and I think everybody here would be anxious to have one at some point,” Messer said.

While he said he would work within town government to get the question out to voters, “the seniors would have to be front and center from here to Election Day,” mobilizing voters to support the measure.

Messer asked the seniors to think of suggestions for what they want in a senior center, so the town can come up with a plan for a building where “seniors would have priority,” though if seniors were not using the space at a particular time the center “would have rooms available for other groups.”

He said the land became available when the Y turned down the two-acre parcel because it was too small for a building the size the Y is envisioning. Messer said the senior center would not have to have a gym or other large, expensive amenities, in part because of the Y.

“The YMCA has a lot of momentum” and may fill many of the roles of a community center, he said, but “the seniors really need to have something of their own.”

Sharing the load

The effort has brought together two groups, one private, organized and led by Elizabeth McCann – Senior Voices, which meets at Scarborough Downs – and the other town-sponsored and hosted by the Hillcrest Manufactured Housing Community, Senior Series.

“We’re happy that we’re going to be together a lot more,” McCann said at the first joint meeting of the groups.

One member of the audience proposed the two groups join permanently. Messer urged the groups to “act as one voice on this question,” whether or not they joined administratively.

Marty Craine, vice chairman of Senior Voices, backed the idea. “We better get out there and talk to people about this,” he said, suggesting groups use their membership lists and other contacts.

Ted Tibbals, who has attended meetings of both groups, spoke passionately in favor of the idea, and asked rhetorically who wasn’t in favor of it. When one woman, who had been worried about the proposal’s cost, raised her hand, it sent ripples of surprise through the room.

Tibbals suggested the senior center include meeting space; facilities for movies, slides and music; an office; a conference room for three or four people; a small exercise room with treadmill and exercise bike “with very limited equipment;” storage space and a kitchen because “certainly we’re going to want to have some meals.”

Other suggestions included an area for a monthly health clinic that could “start with a good scale” and perhaps include a visit from a nurse from time to time. Community Services would have offices in the building, according to Director Bruce Gullifer, but would also look for volunteers to help staff it.

Town Councilor Carol Rancourt, who works at the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, suggested that seniors take trips – perhaps organized by the town – to visit other nearby senior centers to evaluate their buildings and programs.

Tibbals said he liked the idea that seniors would have priority, because, even though the Downs and Hillcrest are generous to share their space, they’re not available whenever seniors want to use them.

“The important thing is we all work together,” he said, broadening his exhortation to the whole community.

“I’m not anti-education, but if I’m willing to approve these school projects, I’m willing to approve a senior center,”he said. “If the school department wants us to support their projects, they darn well better support ours.”

Political timing

Messer said the timing of this question in November is key to its success. Next year the schools are expecting to have a multi-million-dollar referendum on the ballot, to renovate and expand existing schools, or to construct new ones.

“November of 2005 is the most opportune time,” he said, also because it is an off-year election, in which seniors tend to vote far more often than younger people. In off-years, Messer estimated, at least half of the voters are senior citizens.

But, he said, with seniors making up about one-third of the town’s voters, younger people would do well to support seniors’ efforts, in hopes that the seniors would back the big school projects in the future.

Craine said seniors would continue to support education in town.

“We backed the schools, and we always will, and we’ll be backing another one,” he said, calling this year “the best shot that we’ll ever have” to get a senior center, which he said is “long overdue in this community.”

Town Manager Ron Owens said the town wants “to develop a project here that will be supported by the entire community,” and promised to “try to manage it to keep that cost down to the taxpayer.”

One senior asked if it would be better to convert the Bessey School into a center. Messer said that would cost $2.5 million to $3 million to refit, when a new building could be built for under $1 million and could later be expanded. Gullifer said the Memorial Park site could support an addition of 2,000 or 3,000 square feet to an original 5,000-square-foot building, and cautioned the seniors to “be careful not to outprice" themselves when coming up with ideas for the building.

Other questions included whether the building should be called a “senior center” on the ballot. One senior suggested calling it a “community center” instead.

“If it’s tagged a senior facility, we’re in the minority, it won’t fly,” said one senior.

Another asked if the school expansion project might leave available a building that could be, in part, a senior center, perhaps joined with a teen center and some town or school office space.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Land found for Higgins Beach cottages

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 21, 2005): A real estate agent has found land for up to two Higgins Beach cottages of five a local developer donated for Habitat for Humanity.

The agent, Rita Yarnold of Bay Realty, declined to say where the land is or provide any other details, because the deal is not yet secure.

A Higgins Beach developer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has offered Habitat for Humanity five cottages on Kelly Lane, if the housing group can find land for them. The developer declined to comment for this story.

Yarnold, who is also president of the Portland Board of Realtors, has represented him in the sales of five large homes built along Kelly Lane in the past two years, and is representing him in the sale of a house now under construction on the road. She said she proposed the idea of donating houses to the developer in late 2004.

Yarnold said she would also likely represent any future development along the lane. The land on which the cottages sit, listed as about an acre in town records, is valued by the town at $240,000, and the buildings are valued at $180,000.

Until recently, vacationers rented the cottages for $1,000 a week, Yarnold said. They have wide-board flooring and cathedral ceilings, and were originally cottages on the ground. The present owner’s mother owned them previously and raised them onto tall foundations to add space, Yarnold said.

The Portland Board of Realtors has partnered with the local Habitat for Humanity group, to help Habitat find land on which to either build houses or move donated houses, according to Steve Bolton, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland.

“They are out searching for land like crazy as we speak,” he said.

The group usually needs to find three lots a year, so five is a big number, he said. It’s especially challenging because of the booming housing market.

“A lot of the lots we used to get, the ones the builders didn’t want, are now profitable for the builders,” Bolton said.

‘Freedom Park’ to be proposed as name

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 21, 2005): The Scarborough Town Council was expected to hear a recommendation that the new town park on the old drive-in property be named "Freedom Park" at its meeting Wednesday night, after the Current’s deadline.

Jack Cowie III, chairman of the Community Services and Recreation Advisory Board, was to make the recommendation at the meeting. The recommendation was also to include the concept that other elements of the park, including the gazebo and a walking trail, be given specific names in honor of prominent citizens or local history.

And Cowie told the Current Tuesday he would suggest to councilors that the park be “an unscheduled open space” whose fields are available on a first-come, first-served basis to the general public, without a reservation.

That would allow people to have a place for outdoor recreation, without running into the problem of “youth sports or adult rental occupying 100 percent of the space 100 percent of the time,” Cowie said.

“Right now it’s all about prescribed, organized sports,” he said. The multi-purpose field, which will be ready to be played on this fall, is now slated to be used for various Community Services programs and to be available for travel teams and adult leagues to reserve on a regular basis, Cowie said.

But that means other community groups, and private citizens, are kept off the fields, which is a problem for some members of the board, he said.

The park name was the subject of some study, including solicitations to the public for suggestions. Some names that resulted were "Underhill Farm," suggested by the Historical Society, and "Owascoag," a Native American word meaning “place of much grass.”

Cowie said he ruled out "Owascoag" because he didn’t want to “stir the pot” of political correctness, which was last hot when the Scarborough High School team name was changed from Redskins to Red Storm.

And because the family that owned Underhill Farm, which was on the land where the park now sits, had not donated the land to the town, he decided not to choose that name, either.

The board voted, and the top vote-getter was "Veterans Park," followed by "Memorial Park," "Oak Hill Park," "Community Park" and then "Freedom Park" in fifth place, Cowie said.

But Freedom Park had “what I felt was the most compelling support statement,” that “in the aftermath of 9/11 we have a lot to be grateful for.”

While Veterans Park would commemorate the sacrifices of members of the military, after 9/11 people are more appreciative of “everybody who serves in public service,” notably police, firefighters and ambulance workers.

“Freedom Park would allow support and recognition of everybody, including veterans,” Cowie said.

He said the board also wanted to provide opportunities to give names to “sub-elements of the park, like the walking trail that goes around it, (and) the gazebo.” He said Underhill could be a name used for one of those items, and something else could be named in memory of Clifford “Kippy” Mitchell, a longtime town employee and volunteer who died recently.

300-year-old oak falls, twice

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 21, 2005): After weathering this winter's snow and wind storms, a 300-year-old oak tree just waking up for the spring fell across Holmes Road unexpectedly Tuesday morning, damaging a van and closing the road two separate times during the day.

The incident has prompted town officials to inspect and identify other old oaks that may need to be taken down.

At about 7:45 a.m., one large limb fell across the road, smashing the rear window of a passing van. “I just felt an impact,” said Scott Mincher, the van’s driver. “I looked in the mirror and my (rear) windshield was shattered.”

Mincher, who was unhurt, drove away and returned with a chainsaw to help clear the road. Onlookers and those who heard the story told him he should buy a lottery ticket.

While he was gone, a neighbor, Dan McMahan, had grabbed his own chainsaw and started work.

The drivers of other cars, who had to stop because the road was blocked, got out of their vehicles and helped, McMahan said. One person was driving a pickup truck. He swung around, attached a chain to his tow hitch and pulled one large section of the limb to the side of the road, where McMahan cut it up and with help was able to roll it into the ditch, clearing the roadway.

Hours later, a second, larger section came down, tearing off the side of the tree trunk and sending more branches flying across the road.

“It’s too bad it didn’t hit my truck,” said neighbor Arthur Gallant. His white Chevy pickup, on a rebuilt motor and transmission, was just a foot beyond the farthest branches.

“I wouldn’t have cried over that truck,” he said.

Gallant said he was surprised the tree picked a warm, windless day to fall apart, since it had already survived the heavy snows and high winds of this past winter. All the same, he knew it was an old tree, and “I’ve been eyeing it because I was afraid it would take the wires down.”

But when it fell, the limbs just rattled the wires and left them standing.

The tree was taken down later in the afternoon by Bartlett Tree Experts of Scarborough.

Tim Lindsay, a consulting arborist with the company, said the tree "failed" because of "a decay organism that was working very quickly within the tree."

He said fungi were rotting the tree from the inside out, which caused some limbs to appear normal from the outside, despite being discolored on the inside and far lighter than they should be, almost "like balsa wood."

The only way to discover the damage before a limb falls is to drill into the tree and inspect the wood that is removed.

The fungi "work very fast in degrading the wood in the fall of the year and the spring," Lindsay said.

That seasonal spurt, plus the tree's emergence from winter dormancy, led to the collapse. "The buds were swollen and they were ready to pop," Lindsay said. The weight of water now flowing up from the roots into the limbs of the tree overloaded the degraded wood, tearing the tree apart.

Lindsay said he and Public Works Director Mike Shaw will be on the lookout around town for other large oak trees that may be in similar straits and need to be tested.

Faye Holmes, who owns the house lot on which the tree sits, said she hoped other oaks on her property would be allowed to stand. The tree that fell Tuesday has “been in my father’s family for over 100 years,” she said, as part of what used to be Emerson Farm.

She was sad the broken tree had to come down. “The place won’t be the same without it.”

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Parents, schools have role in keeping kids healthy

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (April 14, 2005): Today’s children are so unhealthy, they may not live as long as their grandparents have.

Dr. Steven Kirsch, a family-practice doctor in Scarborough, gave that message to a group of parents at a presentation on youth obesity and wellness sponsored by the Wentworth PTA last week.

Kirsch and Dr. Lisa Letourneau, another Scarborough doctor involved in the Maine Youth Overweight Collaborative and a founder of the Scarborough Wellness Initiative, told parents how the culture has changed to encourage obesity in children and adults, and gave some ideas on how to change personal habits to stay healthy.

“It’s not only for our youth but for us and older adults as well,” Kirsch said. He showed data of adult obesity by state, and a picture of a Time Magazine cover from 1995, with the headline “The Girth of a Nation,” saying Americans have been growing more and more overweight every year.

“It’s not easy modifying your diet,” he said, urging people to eat based on their level of activity. “Your energy in, if it exceeds your energy out, you’ll end up gaining weight,” he said.

On the “energy in” subject, he talked about what he called “portion distortion,” a phenomenon over the past 20 years in which foods have increased in size and calories. For example, a “regular” size bagel has doubled in size and calories in the past 20 years, and a “small” portion of French fries has nearly tripled in size and calories, Kirsch said.

He said many people know they should be having so many servings of different types of foods, but few know what a serving really is.

“The serving size of a piece of meat should be about the size of a deck of cards,” he said. A serving of vegetables or fruit is about the size of a baseball, and “if you want a serving of sweets,” that should be the size of a domino.

Kirsch noted that kids today have less “energy out,” playing video games or watching TV more than young people did in the past.

“As a kid, all we used to do is play baseball as a group in the neighborhood, and we were riding our bikes everywhere,” Kirsch said.

Letourneau said all is not lost, and encouraged the parents in the room to work to improve their health and their children’s.

“It’s everything. It’s not just one thing,” she said. “Until we make it easier to make good choices (rather) than bad choices … we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle” to get people to change their personal behavior about eating and exercise.

She asked parents to think about what they do that might unconsciously encourage their kids to eat unhealthy foods. For example, she said, many parents bring sweets for kids to eat after sports competitions.

“If we’re at a sporting event, why bring it?” she asked, noting that many athletic areas have advertising for sodas, candies or other foods, including on scoreboards.

She said the snack bar by the main high school fields often has unhealthy foods, and suggested it stock apples and other better snacks.

“I guarantee it. If that’s all the kids have to choose from, they will buy it,” she said.

Letourneau also lamented the economics of many school lunch programs, including Scarborough’s, which must be financially self-supporting. That effectively forces them to sell sodas and sugary foods to make a profit to support sales of healthier foods.

Letourneau said there are bright spots. She has heard of students complaining about long lines at the salad bar at Scarborough Middle School, forced them to wait or to choose other foods to get to class on time.

And several fifth-grade classrooms are tracking their exercise through a program called “Maine in Motion,” in which each student uses a pedometer to measure how many steps they walk each day.

“Kids who are more active in school actually learn more,” Letourneau said. Many young children play sports in town, but once they get to the middle school and have to try out for teams, very few continue athletics, she said.

Letourneau said the solutions to weight problems start at home. “When an issue is identified with a child, it’s not about the child; it’s about the family,” she said. “The whole family has to be involved in choosing a healthy lifestyle.”

Parents can encourage their kids to follow what Letourneau called a 5-2-1-0 program, in which kids eat five fruits or vegetables a day, watch no more than two hours of TV or video games, do one hour of physical activity and drink zero sodas. “Juices can be just as bad…Water water water is good,” she said.

To change the “culture of overeating,” she urged parents to take the lead. “We are absolutely role models for our kids.”

Thursday, April 7, 2005

Interest in neighborhood watch grows

Published in the Current

The organization of a Mitchell Road neighborhood watch group has already improved communication between residents and Cape Elizabeth police.

On Monday, for example, a Manter Road resident called police to ask about an unknown car parked in front of her home for several hours.

The woman also called Mary Chris Bulger, a Lydon Lane resident helping to organize the neighborhood watch, to let her know, and told Bulger she wouldn’t have called police if she hadn’t attended a neighborhood watch meeting last month.

“People are much more aware and certainly calling the police themselves” as well as calling or e-mailing their neighbors, Bulger said. “I think that’s how it will go.”

The effort has also sparked interest in similar groups from residents elsewhere in Cape Elizabeth.

Community Liaison Officer Mark Dorval welcomes the prospect of other such groups starting around town. “The more eyes and ears out there the merrier,” he said.

Also welcoming the wider interest is Mary Chris Bulger, a Lydon Lane resident who, with Pam Salerno of Manter Street, is coordinating the Mitchell Road group, which will meet on Wednesday, April 27, at 6:30 p.m. at the town center fire station in Cape Elizabeth to discuss how the effort will work.

Bulger said her group will continue to focus on the Mitchell Road area, and encouraged people elsewhere in town to meet with their own neighbors to set up their own programs.

At the April 27 meeting, Dorval will give a presentation on “being a good eyewitness” to help people know what details of a person or scene are most helpful to police.

Dorval said he hopes the effort improves the sense of community in the area. “In today’s day and age, a lot of people don’t know who their neighbors are,” he said.

The group will also plan presentations for future meetings, which are expected to occur at regular intervals, either monthly or every other month.

“In order for a neighborhood watch to be effective, you need to keep people’s interest,” Dorval said.

Bulger has her own plan to keep the group in people’s minds.

She has an e-mail list of about 22 households who will get regular updates about the group’s activities and programs.

“What I would be happy with is for people to be observant” and call police with questions or concerns, Bulger said.

She said people who live near each other are meeting each other for the first time as a result of the group. “I met several of my neighbors I didn’t know,” she said.

The group has sprung up after concerns arose that an intruder was repeatedly entering homes in the neighborhood and watching people while they slept. No one was harmed, nothing was taken, and the intruder fled as soon as the residents awoke, according to police.

“Hopefully they’ll catch this guy,” Bulger said.

Capt. Brent Sinclair said the department has “got a lot of calls,” including about 10 people suggesting specific names of people they want police to check out.

Of the 10 calls, two named the same person, Sinclair said, while the others all suggested different names.

“Everybody seems to think it looks like somebody they know or have seen,” he said. Police are following up on those leads now.

Editorial: Barring the press

Published in the Current

The state Department of Education should reverse its practice of preventing the media from accompanying public officials on tours of public school buildings being built with public money.

That practice was invoked Wednesday to bar reporters from a tour of Scarborough High School’s renovation and construction site, though the quality of the work done on the project has been under public scrutiny in recent weeks, and was the subject of the tour.

The closing of the tour means the public has one more reason to fear that there are real problems with the construction quality at the high school, and that the schools are trying to cover them up.

Dale Douglas of the department told us Wednesday that the practice is meant to allow state employees – public servants – to speak freely to each other, and said the department is concerned that its employees’ comments might be misconstrued by the media.

But thousands of other public officials in our towns and elsewhere, from town councils to state legislators, conduct their business in front of the media on a regular basis, without complaint or concern. They make their comments openly and conduct frank discussions, including asking hard questions, and their comments are fairly and accurately reported in our paper and hundreds of other media outlets.

The Department of Education doesn’t want to play by the same rules. And Superintendent William Michaud took their side, likening the event to an executive session or an internal investigation.

Michaud forgets that an executive session can only happen when a majority of officials in an elective body vote – in public – to close the door, and only after saying why state law allows them to do so. And the timing of this “internal investigation” – if that is what it is – is unusual, coming as it does after a full public airing of concerns about the construction project, and after the public release of the schools’ extensive rebuttal to the concerns.

It would have been a big help to everyone involved if the public – in the form of the press, the public’s representative – had been allowed on the tour. If there are real problems, we would have seen them and reported on them. If there are not problems, we would have told you that. And if there is not a way to tell without deeper investigation, we would have explained that.

Now, the school board and school officials must consider whether they think the town should spend $20,000 on an outside engineer.

But they have barred one of the few ways to keep the council from conducting what some of them have said is an unneeded outside review.

It’s true that the state officials will issue a report in a week’s time, and that report will be made public. But given the scrutiny and skepticism the report is certain to face, it would have helped all involved – and most of all you, the public – if you had been able to see the process of researching the report. How complete was the state’s review of the construction work? We may never know, and we should.

Michaud should have argued with the state officials that, in light of the public nature of this situation, having the press on the tour would help the schools make their case that everything is “fine,” to use the word of Board of Education Chairman David Beneman.

Unless, of course, there are real problems with the school, or unless there’s no way to tell without being a professional engineer.

In those cases, having the press along would not help the schools. But in those cases, it’s time to spend the money on an outside expert.

Students learn about choice of new pope

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (April 7, 2005): Holy Cross School Principal Deacon Steve Harnois took a group of students into the school's chapel Monday, with its frescos and murals on the walls, as millions around the world mourned the death of the pope.

Harnois has been using the death of Pope John Paul II to teach students about the traditions surrounding the death of the pope and the process of choosing a new one.

Taking students into the school's chapel, "like the Sistine Chapel," is helping Harnois recreate for the students the experience of the cardinals, as they vote to choose the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

“We learned basically what’s going to be happening as the cardinals arrive in Rome,” Harnois said of the events at the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school on the corner of Broadway and Cottage Road.

Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla in Poland in 1920, died Saturday at age 84, after more than 26 years as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

The school is beginning each morning this week by praying the “‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Glory Be’ for the repose of his soul,” Harnois said.

Harnois gave teachers information on Pope John Paul II, and on the process of choosing a new pope, and are discussing the events with their students.

Harnois, who worked 29 years in public education before moving to the Catholic schools seven years ago, said death is not a problem topic at Holy Cross.

“It’s much easier to handle death here than in the public schools … because you can go into Christian beliefs,” he said.

In religion classes, students have talked about John Paul II and what he did during his papacy, as well as the traditions surrounding the death of a pope and the election of a new one.

Some of the students asked about the practices of hitting the pope on the head with a silver mallet and calling out the pope's original name, Harnois said. He told them those measures were to ensure the pope was not stricken with the “sleeping sickness” in the 16th and 17th centuries, which made people appear dead when they were really still alive.

“We talked about all the different traditions that have evolved over the years,” Harnois said, including the prayers before each balloting, why the cardinals’ ballots are threaded by a needle onto a thread and why the ballots are burned after each vote.

Those practices were developed to prevent cardinals from casting more than one vote, which led to questions from students who wondered why holy men would try to cheat. Harnois has discussed with the students how some people throughout history have been more interested in the “power of the papacy rather than the goodness of it.”

And to explain why a newly chosen pope has to pick a new name, Harnois looks to the Bible. “It comes from Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter,” he said, referring to an event in which Jesus renamed one of his disciples to reflect a new, reborn set of beliefs.

Harnois, who was in his late 20s when John Paul II became pope, is now 65. He has also addressed some of the larger issues the cardinals face when they meet to choose a pope.

“The needs of the church, the needs of the kingdom of God, should be discussed,” Harnois said. If there are specific people who meet those needs, their skills might be mentioned, but there is nothing like what Americans might call campaigning. Cardinals do not urge each other to vote for one or another person in particular, he said.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Allen blasts Bush budget plan

Published in the Current and the American Journal

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, sharply criticized the budget proposed by President George W. Bush last week, saying Bush’s spending plan “looks like a budget to reduce economic growth.”

Allen plans to run for reelection to the House in 2006 and is mulling challenging Republican incumbent Olympia Snowe for her Senate seat.

In an interview with an editor at Current Publishing, Allen said the president’s budget, as well as the spending resolutions adopted by the House and Senate – are “all disastrous for Maine” and the rest of the country, and could result in inflation.

Allen, a member of the House Budget Committee, blamed the problems on Bush’s desires to spend huge amounts of money on defense and homeland security, cut taxes on upper-class Americans, and reduce domestic spending.

“It’s so hard for the public to understand that their opportunities in life get affected by how the federal government spends their money,” Allen said.

One aspect that particularly hurts Maine is a proposal to “eliminate … the federal funding that supports agricultural research at land grant colleges,” to research forestry, blueberries and potatoes, among other topics. “No orchardist, no blueberry grower, no landowner can do that (research) on his own,” Allen said.

Spending vs. taxes
While Bush’s budget increases spending overall, it reduces spending on the Small Business Administration, environmental protection, adult education, job training, agricultural research and public housing, Allen said.

“Why? Why is because the president can’t reduce the upper-income tax cuts,” Allen said, characterizing those tax cuts as inefficient. “They gave us too little economic stimulation” and too many long-term problems, including “horrendous budget deficits” topping $400 billion.

“We have to have a stronger sense of fiscal responsibility,” Allen said.

He wants federal revenue to more closely match federal spending. Federal spending is now at about 20 percent of gross domestic product, roughly where it has always been, Allen said. But revenue is at 16.3 or 16.4 percent of GDP, the lowest since 1959 – before Medicare and Medicaid began, he said.

He is also angry about being misled about the cost of the war in Iraq.

“We’re spending over $1 billion a week in Iraq,” Allen said. “Speaking in terms of Bath Iron Works, that’s a destroyer every 10 days.”

But that’s not what former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress before the war.

Allen remembers being told that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction. “The administration went in thinking it would cost very little money,” he said.

He proposed paying for increased domestic spending by getting rid of tax cuts for upper- and middle-income Americans.

“We ought to be investing in those things in particular that either enhance fairness in American society or contribute to economic growth,” he said.

Allen also voices support for federal funding of the Eastern Trail, an effort to create an off-road route from Kittery to South Portland and beyond. He has supported it in the past with earmarks of transportation money, and expects to continue to.

“To understand the value of trails, all you have to do is look at urban and rural trails where they exist,” he said. “They are heavily, heavily used.”

Allen expressed concern that the budget might not get a proper hearing in the chambers of Congress, as members debate the president’s biggest item, the privatization of Social Security.

“The debate over Social Security over private accounts sucks out a lot of the air” Congress would use to discuss other matters, Allen said.

Education and energy
Two topics that need additional scrutiny are the federal education and energy policies, he said.

“No Child Left Behind has become another unfunded mandate,” that has never been given the money it needs to succeed, Allen said.

“There’s not enough money to pay for all the testing and the training that’s required,” he said. “Most educators in Maine would say that we’re spending so much time teaching to the test that we’ve lost the spontaneity” that is crucial to education.

He also wants to revamp the government’s approach to energy, particularly the use of fossil fuels.

“We’ve wasted over four years when we could have been doing an energy policy that could have reduced demand,” he said, blaming the Bush administration for stalling on energy-conservation measures while demanding support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska.

“They wanted to drill but not to save,” Allen said. But in a country that uses 25 percent of the world’s oil and has 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, “ANWR doesn’t matter,” he said.

“We need to be investing in alternatives,” including cellulosic ethanol, which can be added to gasoline to conserve petroleum-based fuel

Health care
Allen wants to “make our health care system more efficient,” to reduce the cost burden businesses bear, and help cover an estimated 45 million Americans who do not have health insurance.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., floated one idea Allen likes during the 2004 presidential campaign. That idea would have the federal government pick up the cost of all health care cases that cost over $50,000, effectively creating a nationwide high-risk insurance pool.

But Allen doesn’t think that will be approved without some means of containing the costs of health care, which could be a long way off.

He deferred questions on what specific drugs or procedures should or should not be included in government-funded programs, but said medical decisions will become increasingly political because of the expense.

“They’ll have to be because the cost of health care is so high,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to escape this.”

The latest Medicare reform bill requires insurance companies to cover one drug in each class, Allen said, but does not specify which drug, leaving private insurers to decide on their own.

“These are the kinds of things that probably require some kind of public process,” to allow the people at large to prioritize health care spending, Allen said.

He also blasted federal involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, saying it was “a clear case” of a decision that should have stayed within the family. If the family disagreed, he said the courts should handle it.

“Congress had no business, in my view, injecting itself into a family matter,” he said, calling the law bringing the Schiavo case into federal court a political maneuver that ignored “the common sense attitude of a majority” of Americans.

“The silver lining to the Terri Schiavo case is more Americans will do living wills,” Allen said.

Soldier’s widow murdered: Lavinia Gelineau’s body was found in her basement on Central Street Friday afternoon.

Published in the American Journal; co-written with Mike Higgins

The widow of a Maine soldier killed in Iraq last year was brutally murdered by her father last week in Westbrook.

The father, Nicolae Onitiu, 51, strangled Lavinia Gelineau, 25, with a clothesline in the basement of her home on Central Street. Shortly after killing his daughter, police said Onitiu, who was visiting from Romania, took his own life by hanging himself from a floor joist in the basement.

State Police Spokesman Steve McCausland said that before killing himself, Onitiu took the time to smoke a cigarette. Police found the lighter still clutched in his hand.

McCausland said police believe the murder took place sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

Westbrook Police Chief Paul McCarthy said it was the first homicide in the city since Oct. 27, 2000, when 21-year-old Brandon Feyler of Portland was stabbed by Anthony Osborne during an altercation outside Osborne’s home on Seavey Street. McCarthy said Osborne was convicted in connection with Feyler’s death.

Police discovered the bodies of Gelineau and her father on Friday afternoon. Gelineau’s co-workers had called and asked them to check on her because she had failed to show up for work.

Gelineau had worked since August at STRIVE, a non-profit in South Portland supporting young adults with intellectual and emotional disabilities. "It was going to be her last day, and she didn’t come in for work,” said STRIVE Program Manager Peter Brown. “We got concerned about her.”

The staff had planned a party for her, because it was her last day of work, before she headed back to school to become a French teacher. They called and left messages for Gelineau, but never heard back. Not showing up was “very unlike her,” and “a couple of employees had a sense that something was wrong,” Brown said.

The STRIVE staff called police twice, the first time to ask them to check on Gelineau. They asked police to call back to say what they had found. The police said they couldn’t call, but could have Gelineau call to say everything was alright.

Later, having heard nothing, they called Westbrook police again. That time, they were asked to describe the make and model of her car and other information, Brown said.

“We were just putting the pieces together ourselves,” Brown said. And, it wasn’t a good picture.

“We knew it had been, first of all, a really horrible year. And we knew that her father had just come into town, and they had a difficult relationship,” Brown said.

Brown said police called the company around noon on Friday to inform them of Gelineau’s death. He said staff members were given crisis hotline numbers to call if they needed someone to talk with and councilors visited the office on Monday to help staff members deal with the loss.

To say Gelineau was having a difficult year is an understatement.

Last April 20, her husband Christopher Gelineau was killed in combat while serving in Iraq.

By all accounts, Gelineau was devastated by her husband’s death and was still mourning his loss.

Gelineau’s mother, Iuliana Onitiu, had come to live with her daughter shortly after the death of Gelineau’s husband. They had previously shared an apartment in Portland before moving to a house in Westbrook just a couple of weeks ago. Gelineau also has a brother who is still living in Romania.

Shortly before her estranged husband arrived from Romania, Iuliana Onitiu had left Westbrook to visit Christopher’s parents.

McCausland said Nicolae and Iuliana Onitiu had a history of domestic violence.

“She wanted no contact with him,” McCausland said.

While it appeared Gelineau was aware of the previous violence between her parents, McCausland said it did not appear that there had been any previous incidents of violence between her and her father. In fact, about six moths ago, Nicolae Onitiu attempted suicide in Romania, and Gelineau flew to that country to visit him.

Gelineau, however, was wary enough about his visit to speak to co-workers about it, especially about how it would affect her mother.

“She was concerned about her father and her mother being in the same place,” Brown said. But Gelineau was not concerned about herself.

“She thought her father’s concerns were with her mother,” Brown said. “She was confident she could handle her father.”

In the wake of her death, those that knew Gelineau remember her fondly, speaking of her love for her husband and the compassion that she showed to other soldier’s families who were suffering as she was. They remember a woman who worked hard to get her life back on track.

“She was just a great lady, and she was doing her best to help everyone out,” said Maj. Peter Rogers of the Maine National Guard.

Rogers said that after Christopher Gelineau’s death, Lavinia remained active in the Guard’s Family Assistance Program, and attended the funerals of other Maine soldiers who were killed in Iraq. “She was very strong for a lot of family members,” he said.

Maine National Guard State Family Program Director Sgt. 1st Class Barbara Claudel said Gelineau had a great effect on the lives of soldiers and their families even after losing her husband. She said Gelineau kept in constant contact with many soldiers through e-mail and also shipped care packages overseas to them. “A lot of families had a deep connection to her because of the type of person that she was,” she said.

Like Rogers, Claudel also remembers Gelineau being at the funeral for every Maine soldier killed in action. Claudel remembers Gelineau offering comfort to grieving families by a kind word, a hug or just her presence. Claudel said he was amazed that Gelineau had the capacity for such compassion even in the face of her own tragic loss.

“I don’t know how she had that kind of strength," she said. “I don’t think she ever stopped giving, even though she was grieving.”

Gelineau also took the time to continue pursuing her dreams. She and Christopher met at the University of Southern Maine. Last May, she received her diploma and a diploma posthumously awarded to her husband to a standing ovation from the audience in attendance at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

“A real tragic end,” said Rogers. “Things were just starting to look bright for her.”

Brown said the staff at STRIVE will be feeling Gelineau’s loss for quite some time. “She was a really nice person who had really suffered a lot,” Brown said. “She was very well liked by our clients and our staff alike.”

Claudel said she would remember Gelineau’s compassion to others in the wake of her own tragedy.

“She was a very special person, and she affected every one of us,” she said. “People don’t do that anymore. They don’t reach out, and she just did. She was very special to a lot of people.”

Looking for a bright spot, Claudel said that at least now the pain that Gelineau was feeling for the loss of her beloved husband was finally over. “She grieved and she grieved a long time because she had an undying love for this man,” Claudel said. “She had a love that most of us don’t see, and now she’s with Chris.”

Friday, April 1, 2005

Cape woman helps Vietnamese neighbors

Published in the Current

CAPE ELIZABETH (April 1, 2005): Three decades after she left Vietnam, Lilly Pyle of Cape Elizabeth is leading an effort to help those still living in her native village.

Pyle was born and grew up in the village of Dong Ha in central Vietnam, just inland from Da Nang, in the territory that became known during the Vietnam War as the DMZ, the demilitarized zone.

“It used to be a little village” and even now has only between 3,000 and 5,000 residents – she has been told not to ask for exact numbers for fear the Communist government will think she's a spy.

When she was growing up, an American military base was built nearby. “As children, we went out to the fence to see them,” she said. “I sell bananas and Cokes and stuff” to the servicemen.

In 1972, the Americans pulled back and the Viet Cong took the village after a devastating rocket attack that split up her family for days.

Heading to America

Pyle was in Da Nang then, learning to be a seamstress, and the family ended up in a refugee camp. Pyle quit school to earn money by doing laundry for an American serviceman from Maine, whom she later married and, even later, divorced.

A friend of Pyle’s from the village ended up working for another American, who shared living quarters with Pyle’s future husband.

That village friend married the serviceman she was working for and moved to Maryland. She sent Pyle letters asking her to come to America.

“She sent me pictures of apples and horses,” Pyle said. The serviceman she had worked for, now back in the U.S., promised to support her if she came over.

But still Pyle worried about whether her father, a police officer, would be punished if she left for America.

“He said he owed me my life anywhere that’s safe at the time,” so she left. After a brief trip to Maryland, Pyle went to Maine, where she got married and had two children.

She lost touch with her girlfriend in Maryland, and began life entirely anew in Maine.

Years down the road, Pyle left what had become a very bad relationship.

“If I escaped from that war, I escape again,” she said. She learned to drive, and to read and write English, and left, for the sake of her children, who have both now graduated from college.


In the mid-1990s, in response to a wish from her dying father, Pyle returned to Vietnam for the first time since she had left.

“Imagine you come home 30 years later,” she said. The villagers were poor and hungry.

Government rules required them to build on land they owned, or the government would take the land for someone else. So the villagers built homes, wall by wall, as they could afford the materials.

Others were able to finish a house, but had no other money. “They live in a nice house and (have) no food because they feel the house is going to be (there for) generations,” Pyle said.

“I have always wanted to do something to help,” she said, and so she resolved to raise money to help the villagers – her former neighbors, who remember her as a member of a good family, one of the oldest in the village.

While she was home, she also got bad news: “The children were getting kidnapped and sold to another country for prostitution.”

Many of the people have no jobs, but still have to pay taxes. They also have to pay for their children to attend school.

With Pyle’s money, families are better able to provide for themselves. Some of her money also goes to help the community at large. The first $4,000 she raises this year, for example, will pay for fences and playgrounds at local schools. After that, “I’ll try to see if I can have some form of a day care.”

Seeking donations

Pyle has set up a non-profit organization, the Vietnamese Hope Foundation, to allow donors to deduct contributions from their income taxes. People can find out more about the foundation at its Web site,, and can send donations to Pyle at PO Box 2752, South Portland, ME 04116.

All of the money goes to the people in the village – she covers the travel expenses herself.

She has returned twice since her father’s death, once with her children and once on her own. Each time she has brought donations to help women and children in Dong Ha.

Many of the women she gives money to are widowed mothers. A lot of the men in the village are dying of cancer – “none of them are over 40” – and the women need the help.

“I can’t save everybody, but I can do a little bit at a time,” Pyle said. “I’ve helped a lot of families.”

But with the American money comes questions from the Vietnamese government, including requests for bribes.

One official demanded she give all the money to him, promising to buy rice to give to everyone in the village. She refused, citing the Biblical proverb “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

“I want these people to become independent like me,” she said.

Pyle wants to be sure of where her money is going and personally interviews families that are possible recipients.

“These people never had anything,” she said. “It’s so hard. Everybody the same situation. … I just help one at a time.”

Pyle wants to broaden her foundation’s donor base, who are mostly now friends and customers at her Old Port hair salon. She is trying to get other Vietnamese-Americans around the U.S. to raise money too, to support their villages.

She believes she has found her purpose in life, and has been given the means to carry it out.

“I believe that God has chosen me” to face the challenges of war, emigration, abuse and poverty. Without those experiences, Pyle said, “How would I know how to get out of the gutter? Then I wouldn’t know how to help these people.”