Thursday, November 7, 2002

Tomassoni joins statewide emergency team

Published in the Current

Dr. Anthony Tomassoni of Cape Elizabeth, the only medical toxicologist in the state, has been chosen to help prepare Maine for public health emergencies.

While his official title is “medical director, office of public health emergency preparedness,” what he really does, he said, is team-building.

Tomassoni is a humble man who avoids talking about what he will do without also mentioning many of the other players involved, and he encourages input from a wide range of people.

His experience is mixed, including teaching school, going to graduate school in chemistry and doing medical work in emergency medicine, toxicology and urban search-and-rescue.

“I still view myself as a teacher more than anything else,” Tomassoni said.

His experience learning varied material and working with diverse groups of people, he said, should serve him well in his new job, which he is doing alongside his previous job as director of the Northern New England Poison Control Center. Tomassoni, who was named to his new post last month, reports to the head of the state’s Department of Health.

In his work with emergency medicine and poison control, he does a lot of outreach, educating the public about ways to stay safe and how to handle chemicals carefully.

He was part of a so-called “planned deployment” of emergency personnel at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as well as responses to the Worcester, Mass., fire in December 1999 and the World Trade Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

With a new national focus on safety and emergency response, Tomassoni said Maine is well prepared for emergencies, even with a small population and not much money. “We’re a small state. People know people, and we tend to haul together as a team,” he said.

That kind of collaboration can make an emergency response very effective, he said.

One of his major priorities is to smooth the process of communications between agencies around the state. As people get more used to communicating about everyday events and developments in public health, he said, they will both use and create a system that is useful in emergencies as well.

Hospitals, he said, are already talking more to each other and to public safety agencies than before Sept. 11, leading him to think communications will be easily improved, and to great effect.

As a doctor, Tomassoni is concerned with public health infrastructure. Unlike the past, today’s immunization programs are not carried out at every school across the nation all at once. Hospitals no longer have spare beds, waiting for patients. Both are expensive, Tomassoni said, but national organization and spare capacity are both important for planning how to handle disasters.

“There’s not a lot of slack in the system that you can begin taking up in the event of an emergency,” he said.

He will work with health and government officials around the state to design a system that has extra capacity without a lot of idle resources. In colonial days, when communities needed extra space for an extraordinary situation, they looked to schools and churches. Tomassoni said that may need to happen again, if an emergency occurs. He wants to set up those options ahead of time, to help everyone be better prepared.

“There is no such thing as a perfect response. They’re always improvised,” Tomassoni said. That’s because nobody knows what the next disaster will be, or where or when it will occur. “There is no way to be 100 percent prepared” for every possibility, he said. Instead, he will be working to create a strong system that can respond to any type of disaster.

Part of it will involve expanding a monitoring system at the poison center, where Tomassoni has worked since 1995, to automate reporting and monitoring of illness reports beyond specific poisons. Creating a public health alert network will help officials better understand the scope and pace of development of any disasters that may occur.

He said his work has just begun, and the challenges are many. But he expects to help reach desired goals for the emergency preparedness system, and work with many different initiatives at once to make them happen.

“It just seemed like the right thing to do at the right time,” he said.

Cape school building expansions at $9.2 million

Published in the Current

The School Building Committee will recommend the School Board approve a one-story, five-classroom expansion to Pond Cove estimated to cost $1.5 million and a $7.7 million renovation at the high school, including an expansion of the cafeteria to seat one-third more students than the current space allows.

That decision was made at a committee meeting Oct. 30, where it was also suggested that the Pond Cove project could be approved by the Town Council, but the high school expansion should go to voters.

Pond Cove expansion Committee member Sue Pierce said the one-story addition to Pond Cove is a better option, given tough economic times. “I think we’d have a better chance of getting it built and then expanding later,” she said. The one-story space would be structurally prepared to accept the addition of a second story in the future – an expansion needed if Cape ever adopts all-day kindergarten.

School Board and building committee Chair Marie Prager said the School Board members have indicated that the all-day kindergarten decision will be made by “a future School Board,” leading her to believe it won’t happen soon.

Committee members discussed at length the possibility of recommending the larger, two-story addition, either because they wanted the school to have the space, or because they were afraid of project cuts in the future and wanted bargaining room.

Pond Cove School Principal To m Eismeier said a one-story option with five classrooms, would provide space for the kindergarten to move into when it leaves the high school and would meet the needs of the elementary school.

Superintendent Tom Forcella said he thought going for a cheaper, smaller option at Pond Cove would make the money question easier on the high school.

“We know we’re dealing with another issue and the dollars are adding up,” he said.

In terms of Pond Cove, though, the school expansion may be possible without adding cost to the school budget.

Town Manager Mike McGovern said the schools were retiring $115,000 in debt service this year.

Borrowing $1.5 million, he said, would cost between $90,000 and $95,000 in debt service, allowing the schools’ debt load to decrease overall.

“You can essentially do it without increasing the school budget,” McGovern said.

High school renovation
Money is more of an issue at the high school, where renovation costs, higher than those for new construction, are driving the price far beyond an initially projected $2.5 million.

Renovating the 35-year-old school will involve interior work including reconfiguration of classrooms, administrative space and special education; adding some additional space to the cafeteria; and increased room for parking. A reworking of the lower field, a lighted playing space between the industrial arts wing of the school and the wetlands toward Gull Crest, is also part of the plan.

The lowest estimate presented to the building committee was just over $7.5 million, but the committee members, with the exception of Councilor Mary Ann Lynch and McGovern, decided to add $193,000 back into the cost, to pay for an expansion of the cafeteria, to hold 75 students more than its current capacity of roughly 200.

High School Principal Jeff Shedd said fitting more students into the existing space would require rearranging the school’s schedule and shortening class times to allow more lunch periods. “You lose academic time,” he said.

Prager and Forcella said overcrowding is already a big problem at lunchtime. Prager said the space needs to be larger, “so that there aren’t students eating in the hallway” and on the windowsill.

Lynch objected, asking whether the existing cafeteria could hold more kids if the tables were configured differently. “I go back to how many kids ate in that cafeteria in the 1970s,” she said.

She was also looking at the cost. She said she was trying to find “a number that feels good,” and had hit upon $9 million for both schools.

“That to me seems like a number that’s going to be a hard sell anyway,” she said.

Lynch said she still supports the project. “I’m prepared to sell it, and I think there’s a lot of need.” But she thought $9 million was going to be an upper limit.

School Board member Elaine Moloney said Lynch was looking at the project as a Town Councilor, and suggested the building committee come up with its own recommendation and let the School Board and Town Council make further revisions if they needed to.

Lynch said she wanted to be consistent, as a member of both bodies. She said she wouldn’t be able to say she supported one version of the project to the building committee but then oppose the same version when it came to the Town Council.

An additional cost to be added in to the project later will be any portable classrooms required to provide adequate teaching space during the renovation work. Because the specific timing remains unclear, that number is not now known.

Moving forward
The building committee will make its report to the School Board at its 7:30 p.m. meeting Nov. 12. McGovern advised all town councilors to get an advance look at the project, either by attending the meeting or watching it on local-access television.

He said they should also watch the School Board discussion and vote on the issue Dec. 10. He said he anticipated the Town Council would not get overly involved in questions about the specifics of the building plans.

“Basically it’s going to be fiscal capacity issues and timing issues, as opposed to digging into every last detail,” he said.

McGovern suggested the School Board propose bidding out the Pond Cove project one year and the high school work the following year, to better handle the impact. With the Pond Cove project alone, he said, “we would be retiring more principal than we would be borrowing.”

Lynch agreed, saying that might help the council approve the Pond Cove work outright and send just the high school work to a referendum.

Cape property manager files for bankruptcy

Published in the Current

Joseph H. Gallant III of South Portland filed for bankruptcy protection Oct. 10, shortly before Cape Elizabeth police started getting complaints about bad checks and missing payments from his companies.

Gallant owns Higgins Beach Property Management and Silver Sands Properties, both rental property management firms based at 299 Ocean House Road in Cape Elizabeth.

Cape police are investigating the complaints, which include a woman from Pittsburgh, Pa., who complained Oct. 15 that she had not received her security deposit back after renting a property this summer and an Oct. 17 report from a resident of the Surf Road area that a property management company had “failed to pay them their income from rental property. ”

A Portsmouth, R.I., resident told police Oct. 19 that she had received a bad check from the company. On Oct. 22, a Jacksonville, Fla., resident told Cape police he had received a bad check as well.

“We’re still waiting for more complaints,” said Capt. Brent Sinclair. He said the department has sent two cases to the district attorney’s office for review and has four more that it will send as more documentation becomes available.

Sinclair said Detective Paul Fenton was scheduled to meet with the district attorney next week to discuss the case.

According to records filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Portland, Gallant asked for protection under Chapter 13, which allows people to keep property and instead undertake a repayment plan over three to five years.

Creditors’ claims in the court totaled more than $30,000 as of Nov. 4, including $18,900 claimed by six owners of seven rental properties in Higgins Beach; $9,965 to a resident of Cape Elizabeth for a rental home on Surfside Road; $1,808 to a Portland law firm for legal services from October 2001 to October 2002; $346 to Central Maine Power for unpaid electrical bills; and $297 to an office supply firm in Pennsylvania for checks and envelopes for mailing checks.

Other claimants, without dollar amounts, included General Motors Acceptance Corporation, which finances vehicle purchases, and a member of a law firm based in Saco and Portland.

Gallant’s lawyer, James Molleur, said he has asked the court for permission to auction off a piece of property Gallant owns in Higgins Beach. The proceeds from the sale, expected to occur in mid-December, should enable Gallant to pay all of his creditors in full, Molleur said.

That process may take until the middle of next year, Molleur said, because of the nature of the court’s processing of bankruptcy cases. He said Gallant filed for protection to eliminate “stressful” calls from creditors.

Molleur said he has heard from several creditors since the filing, all of whom “have been very nice,” and are “pleased that they’re going to be paid.”

One creditor, Cynthia Walsh, of Austin, Texas, who filed documents with the court indicating Gallant owes her $4,445, said she had not heard of a payment plan. As someone who was born and raised in Maine, as was her husband, she said, “I was really surprised that something like this would happen in Maine.”

She said she would have been willing to work with Gallant had he called and indicated he was having money problems, but “we were really shocked” to have a large check from Gallant come back from the bank with insufficient funds.

Walsh said she and the people she knows who rented their property through Gallant have owned their properties “for years and years” and are keeping them as future retirement homes.

Gallant did not return multiple phone calls and pager messages from the Current.

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Former Westbrook man dies in Maryland

Published in the American Journal

Eric Schmehl, 34, formerly of Giles Street, Westbrook, died when he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle in Easton, Md., Nov. 3.

Schmehl, according to his father, Jay, grew up in Warnersville, Pa., and came to Maine in 1999 to seek work as a physical therapist. He worked at Maine Medical Center in Portland for two years and then worked for Alpha One in South Portland.

About six months ago, he left Maine and took up work for a company employing medical professionals who travel around the country filling short-term positions.

Schmehl worked in Pennsylvania and was working in Maryland when he was killed.

According to Easton police, Schmehl had a green light and was crossing a four-lane highway on his bike when he was hit by a 16-yearold female driver making a left turn from the oncoming lane.

Auto shop explosion injures two

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A container of “waste oil and other products” exploded around 11 a.m., Nov. 5, at the VIPDiscount Auto Center at 207 Waterman Drive in South Portland, injuring two male employees, according to South Portland Fire Chief John True.

True said it was a “major explosion” followed by a “flash of fire,” which did not ignite any other material.

Some of the liquid caused chemical burns on the face of one worker, who was taken to a Portland hospital. Asecond worker was taken to a hospital as well, with a possible broken bone.

The fire department covered the liquid spill with foam and waited for an environmental cleanup company to arrive.

True said the exact contents of the container were unknown, but “if the mixture’s right and the conditions are right,” waste oil and other car fluids can explode.

The South Portland Police Department is investigating and notified the state Bureau of Labor and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.