CARY PLANTATION, Maine — By a unanimous vote of residents, the town of Cary Plantation will move forward with its plans to deorganize.
Last month, the neighboring town of Bancroft officially deorganized, ending a three-year process.
About 50 Cary Plantation residents met with state officials July 21 in Houlton for a special town meeting to hear what steps were involved in dissolving a town, what the benefits and negatives are, and what changes residents could expect to see once the town fell under the jurisdiction of Aroostook County’s government.
“We are here tonight because of a petition that was circulated asking [residents] if they would consider deorganizing,” Marcia McInnis, fiscal administrator of the Unorganized Territory, said. “The trade-off [with deorganizing] is you lose control. You are no longer steering the ship.”
As part of the vote to dissolve the town, a five-member committee was created to work with the state on all the steps needed in the process. Named to that committee were Diane Cassidy (chairman), Cindy Green, Bill Halsey, Jeremy Hiltz (town official) and Maureen Friel (school representative). That group must draft a letter to the Maine Legislature notifying them of their meeting results, the reasons for deorganizing and the names of those on the committee.
This committee has 90 days to come up with its deorganization plan. A target date of July 1, 2018, for completing the deorganization process was selected.
Unorganized territory in Maine comprises about 9.2 million acres of land, with 7.5 million of those acres set aside in the Tree Growth program. According to the 2013 audit report, which is the most recent report filed online at maine.gov, there were 421 townships with a full-time resident population of 7,900 people in the unorganized territories. In addition, the 2010 census estimated that there were 11,068 seasonal structures that house about 26,895 nonresidents.
Statewide, the unorganized territory comprises 379 miles of summer roads and 570 miles of winter roads.
One of the primary reasons residents are considering dissolving their municipality is a decreasing tax base. The town’s current tax rate is $23 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That tax rate would drop considerably once the town deorganized. The rate for unorganized territories fluctuates between $6 and $9, and was currently $6.69, according to Lisa Whynot, supervisor for unorganized territory.
Cary Plantation has $40,029 in delinquent taxes for 2014 and an additional $18,336 for 2013. The town collected $193,639 in taxes for 2014. Town Clerk Marcia McGary said there are about 120 registered voters in the town of approximately 196 residents.
Continued efforts must be made to collect those taxes throughout the deorganization process, Whynot explained.
Another problem facing Cary Plantation is that nearly 40 percent of the property in the town is owned by the state for land trusts and, therefore tax exempt.
The town receives $10,962 in revenue sharing from the state, but the total municipal appropriation to run the town, including school and county tax commitments, is $305,015. Therefore, the bulk of the financial burden is placed on the small number of taxpayers in the community.
Towns are not allowed to come into the unorganized territory if there is any lingering debt. Fortunately, Cary Plantation does not have any debt and has only two small parcels of land to dispose of, which should make the transition seamless, McGary explained.
In order to continue with the deorganization process, the town must also pull out of School Administrative District 70. To withdraw from a school district, a town must complete a 22-step process that begins with holding a special referendum to vote on whether or not to officially start the withdrawal process. That article must state how much money the town will raise to support legal fees associated with the process.
Some residents expressed concerns on pulling out of the school district too soon, because it could create a scenario where residents actually wind up paying more for education until the deorganization take place.
If the township moves forward with its plan to withdraw from SAD 70, students from that area would have to pay tuition either to remain in that district or choose another. Tuition costs are set by the state and vary dramatically from one school district to the next.
Once the town is dissolved, the state will pay the costs to tuition students. But until that takes place, residents of Cary must pay that fee. With 18 students, that bill would be considerably higher than simply remaining in SAD 70.
In the 2015-2016 SAD 70 budget, Cary will pay $121,542 to send students to the district.
According to the figures presented during the meeting, the cost to tuition students to SAD 70 is $7,123 for elementary students and $9,754 for high school students. There are 15 elementary students and three high schoolers enrolled in SAD 70; therefore, the cost to tuition those students would be $136,107. Transportation costs are not included.
Other parents voiced concerns over which school district their children would be sent to.
Shelley Lane, director of state schools education in the Unorganized Territory, said there was a common misconception about where students may attend schools once they are under the UT’s jurisdiction.
“Parent choice (for education) is a misunderstanding,” Lane said. “The UT does not have school choice. We select an assigned school for students to attend.”
She did note that several exceptions could be made. But for the most part, students would be required to attend whichever school district The County chooses. Lane added there were about 1,000 children in unorganized territories across the state.
SAD 70 does not have any debt, but if the district were to take out loans before Cary Plantation withdrew, those residents would be on the hook for any debt payments for the length of the loan. What that means is the town would have to pay a lump sum of money to payoff its share of any loan payments.
Paul Bernier, public works director for Aroostook County, said residents would see little change in services provided by making the transition. Bernier said every effort would be made to continue negotiating with the individuals or towns that provide such services as fire protection, ambulance and snow removal.
Bernier said he would have to inspect all of the town’s roads to make sure they were at an acceptable level. Any roads he deems insufficient would have to be repaired before the transition can take place. Bernier used the example of Bancroft, which recently deorganized. That community had to spend about $75,000 to bring a road up to acceptable conditions. Cary Plantation has 13.5 miles of town-owned roads, with 10 miles plowed in the winter.