Media Archive

Atkinson Pushes to Deorganize for Tax Purposes

Article from Bangor Daily News, Monday, February 09, 2004

By Ryan Lenz
of the NEWS Staff

Some say break could start trend

ATKINSON the smoke rising from wood stoves and furnaces over snow-draped treetops may be the only obvious sign this tiny town is here, buried on the edge of vast forests in northern [central] Maine.

About 330 people live in Atkinson, a brief stop on a winding logging road that leads into 9 million acres of rugged wilderness. The area in Maine's unorganized tax territory. And Atkinson's residents, desperate for tax relief, are pleading with lawmakers to let them join. Breaking apart, some feel, may be the only thing to keep them whole.

"They've got absolutely nothing. They don't have a fire department. They don't have a police department. No water department. No sewer department. There's nothing," said Rep. Jim Annis of neighboring Dover-Foxcroft, who wrote the bill proposing the town's deorganization.

But some wonder if the request could open the door for towns tired of high taxes. If lawmakers allow Atkinson to close, it would create one of the most heavily populated townships in the unorganized territory.

"There are a lot of small communities out there struggling with financial issues," said Bob Dorion, rhe revenue department supervisor for the unorganized territory. "And some have suggested that Atkinson may be the start of a trend if they are allowed to deorganize."

Roughly half of state of Maine belongs to unorganized territory. State tax officials estimate that 22,000 accounts are billed annually when property tax is due.

Dorion said Atkinson's size makes it unusual among towns that ask to dissolve and join the unorganized territory -- where hamlets often have more moose than people. And its size may give smaller towns bordering the territory leverage in swaying lawmakers if they ask.

The last time a town dissolved in Maine was in 2001, when Madrid, population 180, won permission from lawmakers, Centerville, population of 25, in Washington County will do so this year. And officials said inquiries have come from other towns, including Cooper in Washington County.

Richard Moreau, who overseas education and school systems in the unorganized territory, said he suspects there are towns with aging populations frustrated by the heavy property tax burden for schools.
"There are some towns out there looking to withdraw from the school district that they are already in, but still be a town," he said.

Atkinson, which was incorporated on Feb. 12, 1819. has three major expenses: roads, schools and county taxes. But with more than half of the town's land exempt from taxation, the financial burden shifts to remaining property owners to fuel the town's budget.

The property tax rate is $19 per $1,000 valuation. By comparison, the rate in Portland is $26.80 per $1,000. And no one can say for certain how much Atkinson's rate will drop if they dissolve.

At one of the town's few commercial spots, a corner gas station that doubles as a tool and chain saw retailer; locals gather each morning for coffee and news, the tax burden is a common topic of conversation.

But it is not the only issue Atkinson's residents consider when talk turns to reorganization. About 50 students would transfer to a different school district as well.

Gov. John Baldacci, who opposes allowing the town of Atkinson to dissolve, contends that the deorganization would shift the burden, adding about $400,000 to the unorganized territory's school budget.

Moreau said a school system's needs essentially drive fluctuations in property taxes, which many of the towns residents already have difficulty paying -- roughly 40 percent of residents earn less than $25,000 each year.

"The way we're going, there are too many people who can't afford our taxes," said George Johnson, who was a major voice behind the community's first attempt to deorganize. "I don't see that we can raise taxes." Johnson, a retired 24-year resident of Atkinson who has held several of the town's offices, was helping to conduct town business from his home last month after flooding forced it to close the town hall. He has spent endless hours researching deorganization, hoping to save the town from its own taxes. But if the legislature doesn't allow the town to deorganize, there may be only one option left, he said. "I think the solution would be to say enough is enough, go bankrupt and give the keys to the county," Johnson said, "At least we would go out with our head held high."

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.