ATKINSON, Maine — Located between Dover-Foxcroft and Milo, the town of Atkinson doesn’t have a fire department, police department or school. One general store serves the community of 326, which this year is trying — for the fourth time in 15 years — to cease being a town.
Jim Brawn owns Snow’s Saw Shop, which also serves as Atkinson’s general store. He said the reason Atkinson should deorganize is clear.
“Taxes are killing us,” said Brawn, who said he pays about $2,500 annually for his business and personal property taxes.
While Brawn’s sentiment is the driving force behind Atkinson’s latest attempt to deorganize and join Maine’s sprawling Unorganized Territory, the town’s opinion is divided. Atkinson’s three selectmen have varied stances, because although the problem of taxes is simple, shutting down the town is not.
Forty Maine towns have deorganized in the past 100 years, according to Marcia McInnis, chairwoman of the State Commission on Municipal Deorganization. Atkinson, however, would be the most populated Maine community to deorganize.
To pave the way, a deorganization plan for Atkinson has been drawn up by Maine Revenue Service, the Department of Education, the Piscataquis County commissioners, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission and the State Commission on Municipal Deorganization.
That plan calls for Atkinson — named so in 1819 for a local landholding judge from New Hampshire — to make significant improvements to town roads, remove a bridge and salt shed and withdraw from its school district, RSU 41, before deorganizing, so the cost of these projects isn’t placed upon the Unorganized Territory.
Kathy Goodine, a member of the Atkinson Deorganization Committee, said these projects would require Atkinson putting up to $3 million in a special account. Last year, Atkinson’s entire municipal budget totaled $438,000.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” she said. “I’m definitely for [deorganization], but with the stipulations the state’s putting on it, it’s not even feasible.”
Atkinson’s $438,000 budget is divided this way: About $195,000 goes to RSU 41 for the town’s 37 students, who attend schools in Milo; $134,000 is road maintenance; town administration costs $49,500. The remainder is for fire protection, sanitation and county tax.
“We don’t raise anything above absolutely what we have to have to keep the town going,” said Selectman David Kinney, who is also on the deorganization committee.
Yet Atkinson’s tax rate is $19 per $1,000 of assessed value. By comparison, the tax rate for the Unorganized Territory in Piscataquis County was $7 per $1,000 in 2012, according to Maine Revenue Services.
Plus, Kinney says, some 17,000 acres of Atkinson’s 23,000 acres are within tax-reducing programs such as tree growth and open space. Kinney estimates this costs the town $60,000 in tax revenue annually.
“It’s taken all the taxable property right out of play,” said George Johnson, another Atkinson Deorganization Committee member.
Atkinson attempted to deorganize for the first time in 1997, but town voters rejected it after the first town meeting. In 2002 and 2004, deorganization reached the Legislature, but failed to win approval each time. Legislative approval of town deorganization is required. Legislation for this attempt at deorganization has not been submitted.
The last Maine community to deorganize — the Washington County community of Centerville, population approximately 26 — dissolved in 2004. Madrid — a Franklin County community with an approximate population of 173 — deorganized in 2000.
The Aroostook County town of Bancroft is also seeking to deorganize. A public hearing on legislation to approve its plan to deorganize, sponsored by Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, is scheduled for Monday, April 29, in Augusta.
Deorganization has been a controversial topic, particularly for Atkinson. In its prior efforts, the town has been viewed as a bellwether for Maine’s rural communities, with a successful deorganization possibly inspiring dozens of others to follow suit.
Rep. Paul Davis of Sangerville, who also represents Atkinson, said he sympathized with residents.
“I think it’s too bad they have to do this, but they feel they have to,” Davis said.
While the drive has been about taxes, the pushback in Atkinson has historically been about local control.
If Atkinson deorganizes, governing powers would fall to the county and state. The effect on the 17 Atkinson students now enrolled in Milo Elementary School and the 20 at Penquis Valley High School is not clear.
Goodine said parents in town are concerned about deorganization’s possible impact on those students and which school they may attend.
“A lot of these parents don’t want to do that because they went to Milo and they want their kids to go to Milo,” she said.
While selectmen Goodine and Kinney support deorganizing, their colleague Sam Andrews does not. If Atkinson ceases to be, Andrews doesn’t think conditions will be better, yet the townspeople would lose any control over their community.
“I just don’t think it’s going to be as great as people think it’s going to be,” said Andrews. “I don’t see the state or county doing anything right.”