State rejects Cary deorganization plan
AUGUSTA — It is back to the drawing board for Cary Plantation officials after the state has denied the town’s proposal to deorganize.
Fearing a trend of more towns wishing to deorganize as a way to reduce tax burdens, a state committee denied the request during a March 9 hearing. However, a similar request from the town of Oxbow was given the initial approval during the same committee hearing.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee quickly voted in favor of LD 1635, An Act Authorizing the Deorganization of Oxbow Plantation. Pending further votes in the House and Senate and further action by residents of the plantation, Oxbow would cease to exist as a town and join Maine’s vast Unorganized Territory, which is run by the state.
After hearing testimony from Marcia McInnis, the state’s fiscal administrator for the UT, however, the panel denied a similar measure, LD 1633, for Cary Plantation, which, with 218 residents as of the 2010 Census, has about four times the population of Oxbow.
“If successful, Cary Plantation will be the largest municipality to deorganize in the state of Maine, and its success will encourage larger and larger communities to deorganize, particularly those in and around MSAD 70 [in the Hodgdon area],” McInnis said during her testimony.
In the last 100 years, 42 communities in Maine — many of them faced with rising property taxes and dwindling populations that no longer could afford local government — have ceased to be towns. The last to do so was the neighboring town of Bancroft, which officially deorganized in June 2015, ending a three-year process.
While McInnis took no official position for or against the bill when she testified, she told lawmakers that when Madrid Township deorganized in 2000 with a population of about 170 year-round citizens, it was very controversial because it was the first municipality with a population over 100 residents to disband.
She pointed out that when Cary organized into a plantation in 1895, state law required that those townships with populations above 200 were required to organize to pay their share of education costs.
Cary residents already voted at the end of last year to withdraw from SAD 70, which also serves the communities of Hodgdon, Amity, Haynesville, Linneus, Ludlow and New Limerick. Cary taxpayers were assessed $95,194 to educate its 19 students this school year, while the state subsidized $125,750 for education.
While Cary plans to tuition students to SAD 70 schools next year, McInnis warned that the state Department of Education does not provide subsidies for students of the unorganized territories and that “the full costs of education are born by the taxpayers of the UT Tax District.” The remaining communities in SAD 70 also would bear ever increasing education costs.
In addition, a number of roads in Cary Plantation are not up to standards and would have to be repaired.
“Municipalities with populations over 200 will leave a financial footprint on the cost of county services to the UT,” McInnis pointed out. “Please consider this matter carefully, because other municipalities in the population category in southern Aroostook, particularly in MSAD 70, will be very interested in joining the unorganized territory.”
Lawmakers on the committee 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.
Cary Plantation First Assessor Kai Libby said Monday that he felt “blindsided” by the decision not to approve the town’s request and added that he felt a decision had already been reached before the hearing ever began.
“I think we were kind of set up,” Libby said. “It was all pre-determined before we even got there.”
Libby said the only difference between Cary’s proposal and the one from Oxbow was the population of the two communities.
For Cary Plantation, the decision to deorganize also has been motivated by tax reasons.
Diane Cassidy, chairman of the Cary deorganization committee, testified in Augusta that the town expects the mill rate to rise to as much as $30 per thousand.
“…the burden to the homeowners is becoming increasingly difficult,” she said.
According to the 2015 town report, Cary Plantation had $40,029 in delinquent taxes for 2014 and an additional $18,336 for 2013. The town collected $193,639 in taxes for 2014. Towns are not allowed to come into the unorganized territory if there is any lingering debt. Cary Plantation does not currently have any debt and has only two small parcels of land to dispose of.
Cary receives $10,962 in revenue sharing from the state, but the total municipal appropriation to run the town, including school and county tax commitments, is $305,015.
Libby stated that 37.4 percent of the town’s population was over the age 60, thus, retired and living on a fixed income and 14 percent of the population lives well under the poverty line.
Finding enough people to fill town positions also has proven increasingly difficult. The town has about 196 residents, he said, but only 120 registered voters.
“We do not have any qualified and trained volunteers to run the town, according to the state required mandates,” he testified. “Our assessors, clerk and tax collector have full time jobs, and manage to do the town work on their off time, out of their own homes. Running a town properly takes full time qualified and certified individuals, in a professional work space, both of which we are lacking.”
Libby said Monday that the the annual town meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 28, at which time residents will discuss what their next course of action would be.
Those steps could involve pursuing legal action against the state or the possible resignations of all town officials, leaving Cary without any government.
“I think they [the state] are seeing that more towns down the road, if they allowed us to do it, would follow suit,” Libby said. “That’s irrelevant in my opinion. We met all the criteria and followed all the steps.”