October 18, 2018
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If a town can’t afford to be a town, it may make sense to disband

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Some 126 years after the town of Bancroft was formed, Wednesday marked the day it ceased to be a town and joined the vast tract of Unorganized Territory in northern Maine. But there was neither fanfare nor taps to mark the occasion.

Bancroft’s deorganization had been nearly three years in the making, as the town tied off loose ends and navigated the long process of transferring management responsibilities over to the state and Aroostook County. During the past 100 years, 41 towns have closed their town halls and deorganized. The last time it happened was in 2004, following a vote by the 26 residents of Centerville in Washington County.

Like Bancroft, home to 60 residents, many of these towns faced rising property tax bills to sustain a government infrastructure for a declining population. In the end, they found it more logical to hand over control to the state and county than to maintain a local government.

Couldn’t afford to be a town

As in the ongoing debate about municipal secession in Caribou and past secession debates in some of Maine’s island communities, rising property taxes generally have proven the spark for discussions about whether a town simply should stop being a town.

Rising property taxes especially burdened a small population with many residents in fixed incomes, according to Mary Ballanger, a longtime Bancroft resident and chairwoman of the town deorganization committee.

In 2013, Bancroft’s tax rate was $22.22 per $1,000 of property value, compared with a statewide average of $14.49, according to Maine Revenue Services.

Ballanger noted that nearly 80 percent of the town’s taxable property was locked up in the state’s Tree Growth program. The program allows landowners to set aside forested land for future timber harvests and pay lower taxes on the property. According to Maine Revenue Services, 19,434 acres of land valued at $2.4 million was tied up in the Tree Growth program in 2013. With this land out of play, it shifted the tax burden onto the rest town, she said.

Another driver of higher taxes had been a dwindling amount of revenue sharing from the state as lawmakers cut the funding source in order to balance the state budget. Last year, Bancroft received $6,037.41 in revenue sharing, which was meant to offset high property taxes, 42 percent less than it received five years before. For context, the town raised $177,899 in property taxes in 2013 to fund school and municipal services.

“We couldn’t afford to be an organized town anymore,” Ballanger said.

Property tax woes

In 2003, Milo found itself in a similar bind, as skyrocketing property taxes — a tax rate of $25 per $1,000 in property value — squeezed residents. Just over the town line, meanwhile, Orneville, which deorganized in 1945, enjoyed a significantly lower rate.

Residents of Atkinson, also in Piscataquis County, cited a rising tax rate, too, as they pursued deorganization. In 2013, property owners there paid a tax rate of $19.

Over the past two decades, Madrid (Franklin County), Cooper (Washington County), Highland Plantation (Somerset County), New Sweden (Aroostook County) and Whitneyville (Washington County) all contemplated deorganization as the antidote to rising property taxes. But with the exception of Madrid, which joined the Unorganized Territory in Franklin County in 2000, these towns remain organized.

It’s no surprise to see why deorganizing has been an attractive option for towns that feel crushed under property tax bills. The average tax rate in 2014 for Maine’s Unorganized Territories, which deorganized towns join, was $7.01, with the lowest being $4.64 in Knox County and the highest being $9.93 in Oxford County.

In Aroostook County’s Unorganized Territory, residents paid $6.69 in property taxes for every $1,000 in property value. By joining the Unorganized Territory, Ballanger and other Bancroft residents expect to see a significant reduction in their tax bill — as much as 74 percent.

A long process

Liquidating local government is a long process — it can take at least two years to complete — and residents often worry about giving up local control to state and county officials, according to Marcia McInnis, chair of the State Commission on Municipal Deorganization and fiscal administrator for the Unorganized Territory in the state auditor’s office.

Once deorganized, a town’s residents have limited say in how state agencies and county administrators divvy up or deliver services residents are accustomed to the town providing.

In Bancroft’s case, the state assumed responsibility for providing animal control and plumbing inspection. The state Department of Education decided which schools children in the deorganizing town would attend — Bancroft’s eight school-age children will go to neighboring Kingman Township for pre-K through grade five and Lee for grades six through 12.

Meanwhile, Aroostook County administrators will contract out other services, such as maintenance and snow plowing for more than 13 miles of road, fire and ambulance, trash and sludge disposal and maintenance for the town’s veterans’ monument. They also decide where Bancroft residents will vote in future elections. The nearby town of Weston will take over responsibility for Trout and Webber cemeteries.

The budget needed to deliver all these services will be determined by the Legislature.

Bancroft also was tasked with selling any municipal properties before deorganization. Otherwise, the state or county would have assumed ownership.

Aside from handing over responsibility for town services, towns that wish to deorganize must clear three key votes: one by local voters to authorize the town to start deorganizing, another by the Legislature approving the town’s request and one last vote by the town during the next general election following the Legislature’s vote to finalize the move.

While many towns entertain deorganization, the process can be held up at any point. The loss of local control — especially when it comes to deciding school matters — can become a sticking point. The Legislature also has killed more than one deorganization effort, as it did with Atkinson’s 2004 effort.

‘Already closed’

Aside from high taxes, Bancroft residents turned to deorganization because they worried about the consequences of a shrinking and aging population. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 68 people were living in Bancroft. Thirty were over the age of 60, compared with just 14 under the age of 20.

A survey conducted by the town two years later recorded 60 residents, an 11 percent decrease. Twenty-two, or 36 percent, were over the age of 60 while 15 were under age 20. By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2013 that 17 percent of Maine’s population was 65 or older.

Without new residents, a lack of interested and qualified people to run the town had become a problem. According to Ballanger, most residents had served office for at least one term, while others served many more.

“Everyone had their turn,” she said.

Several positions, including one on the school board and one on the board of selectmen, had been vacant for more than two years. The Bancroft town clerk — who also acted as treasurer, tax collector and registrar of voters — held that office for nearly 40 years.

“It was getting [to be] too much to run the town,” Ballanger said.

Before Centerville deorganized, it also struggled to find qualified people to hold public office, as residents grew tired of the work it entailed.

Meanwhile, attendance at Bancroft’s annual town meeting had fallen to seven, five of whom were town officials.

Last November’s vote to finalize the deorganization saw the highest turnout of any recent election, with 34 residents voting for deorganization and seven opposing it.

In the months after the vote, Ballanger noted that visits to the town office grew less frequent, as the town transitioned its responsibilities over to the state.

“It’s like we’re already closed,” Ballanger said in June.


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