CALAIS, Maine — As the announced closing date of the local Maine Department of Health and Human Services office on South Street draws near, city officials and state legislators remain hopeful that the agency will reconsider its decision.
DHHS has indicated the office will be closed and its services consolidated with the agency’s office in Machias, more than 40 miles away. The office, which costs the department $100,000 per year in rent, is due to close by the time the lease on it runs out by the end of October.
On Wednesday, the department released a brief statement indicating that the 13 DHHS employees who work in the Calais office will begin reporting to the agency’s Machias office on Nov. 1. It said that because of the high rent at the Calais location, the department will be able to offer “more efficient and effective” services by relocating to Machias.
“To ensure adequate access and continuity of services, eligibility staff from the Office for Family Independence will make regularly scheduled, weekly trips to conduct face-to-face meetings in the Calais area; this will be similar to the pilot program adopted in Dover-Foxcroft,” DHHS officials wrote in the release. “Additionally, individuals will be able to access services online, via phone or walk-in at our Machias regional office.”
Rep. Joyce Maker, who represents Calais and surrounding municipalities in the Maine House of Representatives, said recently that the department appears unwilling to revisit the decision.
Maker, Rep. Beth Turner of Burlington (whose district includes many northern Washington County towns) and Sen. David Burns met in September with DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to present her with petition signatures of several hundred people who want the office to remain open, Maker said, but to no avail.
“It didn’t do any good,” Maker said. “They have their mind made up.”
Marianne Moore, chairman of the Calais City Council, said recently that Machias is an hour drive from Calais. She added that it is even further away for people who live north of Calais in communities such as Waite or Princeton.
In the past year, the Calais office has served more than 5,000 clients, according to Moore. Opening a satellite office in Calais only one day per week, or asking people to call and wait for long periods of time on hold on the phone, will not be sufficient, she said. Many DHHS clients in the area do not have adequate internet service, she added.
“[They] serve more clients here than the offices in Machias and in Ellsworth,” Moore said. “That one day is not going to be enough.”
Moore said she understands wanting to reduce the cost of operating the office but said Calais officials are willing to help the agency find a smaller office that is cheaper to rent. She noted the department reversed a decision it made earlier this year to close its Fort Kent office, and decided instead to keep that one open.
“OK — how about Calais?” the mayor said.