DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The state commission charged with creating a deorganization plan for the town of Atkinson made several changes to the document at a lengthy public meeting held at the Piscataquis County Courthouse on Sept. 30. Once the new draft is completed, the paperwork will be forwarded to the town of Atkinson and the clock starts ticking again.
After the Atkinson Board of Selectmen has the new deorganization plan, they have to convene a public hearing and then hold a special town meeting between 14 and 30 days after the hearing, according to commission chair Marcia McInnis, who is also the fiscal administrator for Maine’s unorganized territories.
If the plan is accepted, the next step is to request that a bill be submitted for the second session of the Maine Legislature which begins in January. But since it won’t be a bill carried over from the regular session, it has to be approved as emergency legislation by the Legislative Council, which consists of the 10 elected members of legislative leadership.
State Sen. Doug Thomas, who was at the meeting, said that there’s no guarantee the council will accept it, either. “They may decide that it’s not an emergency,” Thomas said. “This is something that’s been going on for quite awhile.”
Atkinson has voted on deorganization three times in the last 16 years with mixed results. The first attempt in 1997 failed at the polls, but voters approved deorganizing in 2002 and 2004, only to have the plan rejected by the Legislature.
High property taxes are the major concern in the town of 326 people where a lot of land is taxed under the Tree Growth and Form and Open Space Law. The mill rate is $19 per $1,000 of assessed value while the average tax rate in an unorganized territory is $10.53 per thousand.
Another major hurdle the town faces is withdrawing from School Administrative District 41. While the withdrawal doesn’t have to take place until after the Legislature approves the reorganization plan, McInnis said that the town “must settle all the liabilities and other issues related to membership in the district.” Atkinson sends 38 students to SAD 41 schools and the original deorganization plan estimates that the district could lose between $175,000 to $275,000 annually if the town becomes an unorganized territory.
Changes approved in the deorganization plan, which was originally written in February, clarify some of the financial liabilities and responsibilities of the town if they decide to disband their local government. While the original plan included language that required that funds be put into escrow to take care of roads, bridges, salt sheds and the town’s share of the Dover-Foxcroft landfill costs, committee member Tom Walker of Maine Revenue Service explained that it couldn’t be done legally. “You can’t carry debt into a UT. It would be an administrative nightmare,” Walker said. So the new language requires the town to make sure its infrastructure complies with county and state codes.
Another issue to be studied further by the commission, county and Atkinson officials is the status of some roads and bridges. While a portion of Dyer Road is listed as seasonal, town officials say that it’s open year-round. McCorrison bridge has been blocked by the Maine Department of Transportation for more than a year, but local residents reportedly removed the barricades and are now using it.
While responsibility for road maintenance would fall on the county if the deorganization plan goes through, McInnis emphasized that the county “is under no obligation to accept a road or a bridge. It’s their discretion.”
The commission plans to reconvene again soon, more than likely in Dover-Foxcroft, to give final approval to the revised plan and forward to the town of Atkinson.