CARIBOU, Maine — A proposal for 80 percent of Caribou’s geographic area to break away and form a new town called Lyndon in an effort to lower property taxes has taken many residents by surprise and it’s been the topic of discussion around town since it was unveiled last week.
Most people opposed to secession “don’t live in the outskirts of town, and they’re saying ‘it’s silly’ or ‘it’s ridiculous,’” says Karlyn Williams, who hears different perspectives all day long as owner of the local salon Lavender Puff. “But one woman who was in here said she can’t wait for it to go through. She said she pays $4,000 a year (in taxes), she gets nothing for it, and she hopes it passes.”
Supporters of the move say residents who live on large lots of land away from downtown Caribou pay a disproportionate amount of property taxes to help fund services that benefit only those who live near or in town.
Whether folks are for secession or against it, all sides agree that regardless of the outcome, the process takes time.
“We’re at the first step right now, and just because we go through the motions doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to be successful,” said Caribou Secession Committee spokesman Paul Camping.
Camping and the 20-person committee are currently coordinating efforts to gather enough petition signatures from registered voters — 1,032 — to hold a public hearing on secession, and they have as many as 10-15 new supporters who are looking to help.
While the ultimate goal of the committee is to form the new town of Lyndon with lower taxes, Camping is spreading the word that signing the petition will only move the secession process to the next step — which is a public hearing.
“The petition is not their vote to secession, it’s an opportunity for more information,” he said. “People who sign the petition can always vote ‘no’ later — it’s the vote that counts, not the signature on the petition.”
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.
Camping said 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.
The most frequent concern Camping has heard from potential Lyndon residents is what happens to services — and Camping says services aren’t going anywhere.
“We have made provisions for highway maintenance, both summer and winter, law enforcement, and fire and ambulance,” he said, listing other services such as solid waste disposal as well.
Camping acknowledged that no contracts for such services have been signed since the town does not exist yet.
“People have to be assured they’re not losing what they have now. Lyndon will be a full-service town and everything they need they will get, and nothing they don’t,” he said.
But in the opinion of Caribou Mayor Gary Aiken, splitting the city to save tax dollars doesn’t make sense.
“It would be like the Wal-Mart Super Center in Presque Isle deciding they were going to split the store in half with grocery and household items … now they both have to supply their own cashiers, their own stock people and everything else. Where would the savings be in that?” Aiken said. “Plus, the fact that, from the citizens’ standpoint, I think they’re better together. They’ve been together for 150 years here, and this kind of seems like a stupid time to split it up.”
“We all understand that economic times are bad. Are they going to get better? I don’t know. But regardless of what happens, we’ve got a much better chance to withstand it all as one — not two different communities,” he said.
Camping disagrees, and thinks that the only way left for the citizens to become stronger is to ease the tax burden the city is currently placing on them.
“People are struggling. We have a high number of people in our community who are disabled, unemployed, who are on Social Security, who collect food stamps and receive LIHEAP benefits … but it gets more and more expensive to live here and [the council] doesn’t seem to care because year after year, they’re raising taxes,” Camping said.
To date, the Caribou Secession Committee hasn’t released its proposed budget or figures supporting its claim of providing a 15.9 mill rate in the proposed Lyndon, but Camping stated that the figures will be made available to citizens at the public hearing.
Caribou’s current property tax rate is $22.30 per thousand of valuation.
Aiken has yet to see any financial information or projections for Lyndon’s budget, and he speculates that the taxpayers left in Caribou might actually have lower taxes than those living in Lyndon — but finances aside, he doesn’t think separation would be beneficial for Caribou or Lyndon residents as a whole.
“A concern I do have is some hard feelings may be caused over this, and that’s not what the process is for,” he said. “It is a democratic process, I think it should all be up front, I think the budget should be released now, I think the people that are signing petitions to determine whether they want to separate or not should actually see what it’s going to be — and be able to ask questions themselves before they sign a petition.”
Camping says that those circulating the petitions have many of the answers folks are looking for — and all they need to do is ask.
“When we knock on the door and we ask to see Mr. Smith, because he’s a registered voter, we’re going to tell him what we’re up to,” Camping said. “The cover page (of the petition) states the purpose and the intent, and also shows the map and street address so they know they’re within the territory, and they have every opportunity to ask questions at that point if they want.”
Camping said anyone wanting more information about the proposed secession can email him at email@example.com.