Residents of the Aroostook County town of Oxbow have elected to disband their local government.
Twenty-one of Oxbow’s estimated 53 inhabitants showed up for a special town meeting the night before Thanksgiving and voted unanimously to deorganize, join the unorganized territory of Maine and rely on the county and state for public services.
If the state approves the plan, Oxbow will have to vote again in the November 2016 general election, and among other duties will have to pay off about $57,000 for its share of the 5-year-old Ashland District School, said Steven Sherman, the town’s first assessor.
Oxbow, one of several junctions to the North Maine Woods west of Route 11, has been facing the same challenges as many other rural Maine towns, said Sherman, who also serves in other government capacities and runs a tree farm and gift shop.
“Taxes continue to go up and we’re losing population incredibly quickly,” he said.
In the 2010 census, Oxbow’s population was estimated at 66. Town officials surveying residents last year counted 53, more than half of them older than 50.
In 1994, Oxbow residents voted 21-9 against deorganization, but this time it’s different, residents said, because of the tax burden — a mill rate of $23.50.
Before Oxbow can deorganize, the state Legislature has to approve the plan and the town needs to cease to own property, Sherman said, noting that new owners will have to be found for the community center, which housed a grade school until 1967. A local church may take over the community center, the county would likely take over two cemeteries and the state will take over a boat launch, he said.
How much more residents will have to pay before an expected drop in their taxes remains unclear, depending on whether the town has any debt, including the $57,000 school obligation, going into deorganization.
“The state could finance our debt, if we are carrying debt at the end of deorganization,” Sherman told residents at the meeting, relaying information he said he obtained from a state government official.
Oxbow was settled in 1842 by Elias and Samuel Hayden, pioneers from Somerset County who poled up the Aroostook River three years earlier, according to the Oxbow Historical Society. As more settlers came and started mills and farms, Oxbow was organized as a plantation in 1870.
People here are still working in forestry, farming and outdoor guiding, with a number of lodge and guiding businesses around the town and the vast North Maine Woods beyond its borders. The town is aging, though, and some residents are looking to younger generations who may settle.
Almon Currier, owner of Umcolcus Sporting Camps, is heading into retirement and selling the lodging and cabin business. “We feel it’s time for a younger generation with more energy to continue the tradition,” Currier wrote on the the Umcolcus website.
“We’re fewer in numbers all the time, and the break in the taxation is going to be a big help,” Currier said at the meeting.
When Oxbow becomes Township 9, Range 6, it will join 41 other Maine towns that have deorganized over the last 100 years, most recently the former Aroostook County town of Bancroft this year.
Whether or not the area attracts more residents, Sherman said Oxbow will still be a small community in the north woods.
“We just won’t have any local government.”