Officials Fear Domino Effect as Aroostook County Towns Try to Deorganize

Mar 11, 2016

The Aroostook County town of Bancroft reverted to an unorganized territory a year ago after aging taxpayers found themselves trapped between escalating municipal costs and a stagnant valuation. Now two more Aroostook County towns would like to follow suit.

On Wednesday, a legislative panel gave initial approval to one request but denied another, citing fears of a possible domino effect.

At a town meeting in Bath Thursday evening, Gov. Paul LePage was asked what the state can do to hold down local property taxes that when local education costs go up, and the governor answered as he usually does.

“We are a home rule state, home rule means local control,” LePage said.

In other words, there’s not much state government can do, because its up to cities and towns to take charge of their own financial destinies. But what happens when a town suddenly decides that its just too hard to run itself?

“We had no people other than volunteers running the town,” Diane Cassidy said. “We had no idea what was going on.”

Cassidy drove more than 200 miles from Cary Plantation to Augusta this week to make the case before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee that after 121 years, the town was ready to call it quits and revert back to an unorganized territory.

Another Aroostook County town, Oxbow Plantation, was also seeking a status change.

In both cases, residents cited aging populations, declining per-capita income, stagnant valuations, rising highway maintenance costs and, above all, accelerating education costs that are driving property taxes through the roof.

While the median property valuation assessment hovers in Maine at around $14.50 per thousand, the number in Cary Plantation has hit $25. And Cassidy says it will only get worse.

“We expect to be over $30 per thousand before deorganization is complete,” Cassidy said.

But by becoming unorganized territory, or UT, the burden would be eased, since the average UT rate in Maine is around $7 per thousand. The unorganized township’s road maintenance costs would be divided among other unorganized towns in the county, and education expenses would be divided among all of the unorganized townships in the state.

Lawmakers listened to arguments from both communities and quickly voted in favor of Oxbow’s application. But the case of Cary Plantation, with about 200 residents and 20 school-age children, posed some problems for Marcia McInnis, the state’s fiscal administrator for the UT.

“If successful, Cary Plantation would be the largest municipality to deorganize in the state of Maine, and its success will encourage larger and larger communities to deorganize,” McInnis warned, though she took no official position in her testimony before the committee.

Although it has recently withdrawn from School Administrative District 70 in Hodgdon, Cary residents have agreed to pay tuition to Hodgdon for their children’s education. McInnis says if Cary were allowed to deorganize, the rising costs of the district would have to be picked up by the remaining towns, such as Haynesville and New Limerick.

“Other members of the MSAD 70 have approached us informally,” McInnis said. “Once this community deorganizes, they will lose this state subsidy and that MSAD 70 will have to make that subsidy up, so it is a self-perpetuating kind of cost escalation on the remaining members that will probably destabilize that school district.”

Committee members cited those factors and what some said was an inadequate financial analysis by the applicants as reasons for voting against Cary’s application, but they invited town residents to return next year to make another case.

Kai Libby, Cary’s first assessor, says he and other deoganization supporters were disappointed by the vote. And he wonders whether the town can hold out for another year.

“I have to go to the town now and get them to sign off on monies to pay these bills and I don’t know — they may not,” Libby said.

In which case, lawmakers on the State and Local Government Committee could be hearing from Cary Plantation much sooner rather than later.