DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Residents of Atkinson have voted three times during the past 16 years on whether to deorganize the town, dissolve its local government and become an unorganized territory.
Taxes are the major issue in the Piscataquis County community where 17,000 of its 23,000 acres are qualified for the Tree Growth and Farm and Open Space laws. The statute permits towns to levy taxes at a rate lower than traditional values.
Voters in the town of just over 300 people rejected the first attempt at deorganization in 1997. In 2002 and 2004, voters approved deorganization, but bills submitted by the Legislature to authorize it failed to win approval each time.
According to Marcia McInnis, the fiscal administrator for the state’s Unorganized Territories (UT) Division, the majority of Atkinson residents still favor deorganizing, but town officials need to move forward on their specific plans for the change.
So on Monday, Sept. 30, McInnis, County Commissioner Fred Trask, Atkinson town officials, State Sen. Doug Thomas and other interested parties will meet at the Piscataquis County Courthouse at 10 a.m. to see if they can iron out the issues.
McInnis said that a local deorganization committee has already been formed, and state agencies involved in the process drafted a tentative agreement back in February, so the groundwork is in place. “But this is a very large town (population 326) to deorganize by state standards,” she said. “Plus, the county will probably take a good look at some road issues in the town.”
Trask agreed. “I think we need to have a discussion on the condition of some of the roads since we (the county) are going to be responsible for their maintenance if this goes through. In fact, the county is responsible for everything in the UTs except for education.”
The county commissioner also said previous plans for Atkinson’s deorganization were compared to other towns that successfully went through the process while the latest one “is being looked in comparison to the other unorganized territories we already have in the county. I think this meeting will be very productive.”
Thomas said that he is also looking forward to the Sept. 30 meeting. “I understand their situation in Atkinson and I know about the Tree Growth issue. But in all fairness, since Gov. (Paul) LePage has been in office, the state reimbursement to the towns to make up for the loss in taxes to Tree Growth is fully funded,” Thomas said. “But there are a lot of things in the agreement that the selectmen will probably have to take back to the townspeople. I think this will be an interesting meeting.”
There are also questions regarding the town’s status with School Administrative District 41. According to the plan drawn by the state earlier this year, “The deorganization of the town of Atkinson cannot become effective before a withdrawal agreement with MSAD 41 is negotiated to distribute assets and financial obligations and other liabilities the Town of Atkinson has incurred as a member of MSAD 41 since 1965.”
The plan also states that if deorganization goes through, students in Atkinson “shall be provided educational services at school facilities located within Maine School Administrative District 68 (Dover-Foxcroft).”
Atkinson Selectman Sam Andrews said that, in his view, some of the terms outlined in the state’s plan “are ridiculous. I thought the reorganization issue was pretty well dead, and I’m not even sure what the (Sept. 30) meeting will accomplish.”
Andrews said that he’s against deorganization because of financial considerations. “From what I understand, we’ve got to come up with almost $3 million to put in escrow to take care of potential liabilities, so I don’t see how taxpayers are going to save any money,” he said.
Andrews did say, however, that there are some advantages to sending children to SAD 68 schools. “Atkinson is spending almost $7,000 per pupil to SAD 41, and Milo residents are paying $2,900. That’s just not right,” Andrews said.
Repeated attempts to reach First Selectman David Kinney and Selectman Loretta Nuite for comment were unsuccessful.
The Sept. 30 meeting is open to the public, according to McInnes.