A lengthy document put together by a group that wants to secede from the city of Caribou neatly summarizes a tension that has sprung up across the state: Rural residents believe they are unfairly being made to support the more developed parts of the state, and they resent it.
“We are rural fiscal conservatives and we renounce expensive municipal government and the high taxes that accompany it,” they write. “Caribou is becoming the Portland of the North and we choose not to be part of that change.”
Next week, the secessionists and Caribou officials plan to meet to discuss solutions other than breaking the Aroostook County town in two. This is a hopeful development for Caribou and other communities facing difficult spending and taxing decisions, which are especially acute in rural areas.
Dissing Portland has long been a mantra of rural residents and lawmakers. Such thinking, however, ignores the fact that the greater Portland area accounts for more than half the state’s economic output and that the small amount of population growth the state has seen has happened in urban areas, particularly Bangor and Portland. Bangor’s population grew 6.2 percent between 2000 and 2010, and Portland’s grew 6.1 percent during the last decade, according to Census figures.
Worse, such an assessment makes it seem as if rural residents never go into cities or use their services. We doubt that is the case.
Among the list of municipal spending items in Caribou that secessionists object to are street lights, public parking lots, the city’s Wellness and Recreation Center, the municipal swimming pool and city festivals.
Rather than the expensive and unnecessary burdens the secessionists characterize them as, these and other city services are amenities that make a community more liveable and attractive to visitors, who spend money there, and new residents, which Maine sorely needs to spur economic development. It also is not surprising that services that all of us depend on at one time or another, such as hospitals, libraries and state government offices, are clustered in cities such as Caribou. Cities also are where the jobs that are crucial to an entire region’s survival and commercial entities such as grocery stores and banks — on which residents of an entire region depend — are located.
Taxes are one part of a communal compact that acknowledges government — federal, state and local — provides important services, such as education, infrastructure and public safety, that must be funded. Taxes pay those bills.
There may be heated arguments about whether government expenditures, and tax collections by extension, are too high or too low. Generally, a representative body — in this case, the Caribou City Council — or the people themselves vote on what programs and services will be provided and, therefore, what the tax rate will be.
In Caribou, a group of residents in the “rural” part of town believe the Town Council is paying for too much and therefore, it has set a tax rate that is too high.
They have proposed forming their own entity, Lyndon, which will have fewer services and, hence, lower taxes. But this solution would only exacerbate the stress that comes from Caribou being a service center, and it will tear away at the communal compact that keeps the city running.
So, it is encouraging that leaders of the secession movement have begun talking about alternatives, such as more opportunities for citizen input in spending decisions or a different town government structure.
Dividing Caribou, or Maine, into chunks of like-minded people is not the solution to difficult spending, taxing and economic development problems.