CARIBOU, Maine — If several fed-up Caribou taxpayers have their way, Aroostook County’s second-largest city would shrink in area by nearly 80 percent and lose a sizable chunk of its population.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, the group unveiled its plan to secede from Caribou to form the new community of Lyndon.
“What we are trying to do is take our land in rural Caribou back away from the city of Caribou,” Paul Camping, spokesman for the 20-member Caribou Secession Committee, said Tuesday afternoon. “The size and cost of [Caribou] city government is too big and too expensive.”
Lyndon, Camping said, was the original name of the town that in the mid-1800s included the village of Caribou.
In 1869, several communities were annexed to Lyndon, which was officially renamed Caribou in 1877. By 2013, the city had grown to a population of 7,952, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The secession committee is attempting to reverse the 1869 annexation to regain the rural town character and lower taxes of the original town of Lyndon,” Camping said. “Our [tax] assessment in rural Caribou is much higher than that in the urban compact, or ‘downtown’ zone of Caribou.”
Camping said people who live on large lots of land away from the downtown pay a disproportionate amount of property taxes to help fund services that benefit only those who live near or in town.
Caribou’s mill rate is $22.30 per thousand of valuation and Camping said taxes on his own 60 acres went up around $300 this year to $3,605.
As outlined on a proposed map, the new Lyndon would include all of what is now Caribou except for the downtown area.
“Downtown Caribou has many small houses and small lots with nice neighborhoods, sidewalks, hydrants, recreation and the library,” Camping said. “In the rural areas our homes and lots tend to be larger with older farm houses and we are paying more for less.”
Camping said he and his neighbors are ready to take control of their own land and services and have started to circulate a petition to begin the secession process.
He insists the city’s own charter leaves them no choice, with Article One granting authority to residents to propose civil ordinances excluding any that deal with budgets, salaries or the levy of taxes.
“After many months of contemplation we felt the best way to approach this is through secession,” he said. “We began exploring it in December.”
Maine law, M.R.S.A. Title 30-A, Part 2, Subpart 2, Chapter 113 “Consolidation, Secession and Annexation, Sect. 2171 & 2172,” spells out the process for residents of a territory to secede from a municipality.
“It is not an easy thing to do,” Camping said of the process, which involves a petition, public hearings and state legislative action. “It will be a long and arduous journey.”
Caribou Mayor Gary Aiken wishes them luck on that journey.
“It’s going to be a great lesson in democracy and how democracy works,” Aiken said Tuesday afternoon. “We will go through the process.”
At first look, Aiken said, he is not convinced the residents of a future Lyndon are going to see any municipal tax savings.
“I almost think their taxes would be higher,” Aiken said. “They would take 80 percent of the land and 30 percent of the population to cover all those roads and public works.”
In fact, Aiken said what would remain of Caribou may well be better off with regard to taxes.
“There is no question the Caribou side would reduce expenses,” he said. “It would cut our public works budget in half right away.”
Camping countered Lyndon’s 2,063 residents would see a tax reduction by virtue of a smaller working government and frugal contracting with private entities to provide services such as snow removal and road maintenance.
Emergency response services could be shared with neighboring municipalities and the new town would join the Regional School Unit 39 in Caribou.
Aiken agrees tax rates are a concern in Caribou — as they are in small towns around the state and the country — but said if the members of the pro-secession committee are so concerned with governmental spending, they have an odd way of showing it.
“You have people here so dedicated to cut expenses and everything else and in the last three years every seat on the town council was filled on election but not one of them ever took out papers to run,” Aiken said. “You would think they would do so if they wanted to be that involved.”
This is not the first time a group of Maine residents has attempted to secede from its municipality based on taxes.
In 2007, and again in 2011, a bill to let Peaks Island secede from Portland and form its own town was killed by the Maine Legislature.
Caribou City Manager Austin Bleess on Tuesday said he was caught by surprise by the secession discussion Monday night, but is ready to sit down and talk with all sides.
“As for taxes and budgets we really don’t have that information, what would happen if they secede,” Bleess said. “But I am looking forward to a full debate and discussion.”
For now, while the secession group works to collect signatures on its petition, members of Caribou’s governing board can only watch and wait.
“I am really not concerned,” said Aiken, who would still live in Caribou if the municipal lines are redrawn. “One of the [secession] organizers would still be in Caribou [and] I have not seen his house put up for sale yet.”