DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Steve Hobart of Blanchard was surprised when he opened his tax bill last month and discovered the taxes on his 950 acres in the Unorganized Territory in Piscataquis County had jumped by 30 percent.
“It jumped significantly,” Hobart said Thursday. Despite the hike, Hobart said he was thankful the Unorganized Territory taxes are still among the lowest in the state.
Hobart said he recognized the difficulties that faced the commissioners in the budget process. “The county has fallen further and further behind. They haven’t been setting any money aside for the improvement of the roads and stuff like that. That money has got to come from someplace,” he said. “Whenever there’s a change, you know, especially that’s hitting your pocketbook, it’s really hard to take.”
While Hobart recognizes the need for the increase, others have not been as receptive to the mill rate change from $7.16 to $9.51 per $1,000 property valuation.
Sen. Douglas Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, and Bob Doiron of Maine Revenue Services both said this week they have fielded a number of calls from taxpayers who are troubled about the increase.
“Piscataquis County seems to be the county where we’ve gotten the most questions about tax increases,” Doiron said Wednesday. He said the increase was one of the highest in the state. Another large jump was reflected in Penobscot County’s Unorganized Territory where the tax rate increased from $8.52 to $10.55 per $1,000 property valuation. Because there were no valuation changes made this year by the state, the increase was mostly reflected in the Unorganized Territory budgets, he said.
Doiron did note that the cost of education and the reduced amount of surplus available this year to help offset the commitment also played a role in the increase. In 2008, just under $4 million in surplus helped offset Unorganized Territory taxes compared to just under $1 million this year, he said.
As with all Unorganized Territory budgets, there are three tax components: the amount taxpayers contribute to state agencies that provide administrative services such as Maine Revenue Services, the Land Use Regulation Commission, and the Department of Education; the amount paid to help operate county government; and the amount commissioners budget for services such as road improvements, fire protection, solid waste disposal and cemeteries.
Doiron said his department has no “real standing” in creating the services budget. Those services cost $1,145,517 compared to a budget of $1,389,350 this year, which reflects a 21.3 percent increase for Piscataquis County’s Unorganized Territory, he said.
Providing services in the Unorganized Territory for about 900 people spread throughout the county is expensive because there is no public works department, Commissioner Tom Lizotte said Thursday.
“Any delivery of services is going to be inefficient if you don’t have the population clustered together,” he said. In most cases, the commissioners are lucky if they receive one bid for road maintenance, he said.
Lizotte said the big drivers for the increased costs this year were roads, solid waste disposal and fire protection.
“I think people in the UT see their tax bills and they go ‘ouch’ and they think ‘oh wow no one is minding the store’, but part of the problem is that it’s inherently inefficient to deliver services to that few people spread out over that big of an area,” Lizotte said.
Lizotte believes some of the Unorganized Territory costs are skewed by Orneville. He said Orneville, which is surrounded by organized towns, has a population of more than 300 which represents more than a third of the Unorganized Territory’s population. Orneville has a bigger population than some of the organized towns, he said.
Commissioner Fred Trask said it also hasn’t helped that the county took over about 7 miles of road in the First Roach Pond area at the behest of residents a few years ago. This added about $50,000 to the budget, he said.
The commissioners have tried to reduce costs by closing Squaw Mountain Access Road and Drew Valley Road to winter maintenance and by closing the Orneville transfer station, but residents haven’t supported the proposals, Trask said.
“I think people think that there’s irresponsible spending, but it’s not like we’ve created new programs. Things are pretty much the same,” Commissioner Eric Ward said Thursday.
Roads are an issue, he said. The cost for plowing Blanchard roads increased by more than 30 percent this year, and in two years, it will have increased by 100 percent, he said. Only one contractor submitted a bid for the work and was awarded the contract.
Ward, who lives in the Unorganized Territory, said the commissioners are doing everything they can to reduce taxes. “We’re going to be working hard to do what we can to reduce spending.” he said. To help toward that end, he asked residents to come forward with suggestions to help cut costs.