Media Archive

Atkinson faces tough decisions

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 164, No. 44, October 30, 2002
To the editor:

The issue of de-organizing Atkinson is probably the most important issue the town has faced since its inception in 1819. It certainly wins the prize for causing the most dissension and division among families and longtime friends. Perhaps the only decision greater in importance than de-organization would be Atkinson's decision in the late 1960s to join SAD 41 in Milo. That decision has had long-lasting effects on Atkinson, just as the decision of whether or not to de-organize will.

Atkinson's long-term existence as a town faces a great unknown. Demographic data shows that the average age of residents in Piscataquis County is increasing. Simply put, young families are not staying to live in the area, nor are young families moving to the area. Atkinson is certainly no exception to this trend which makes one wonder who will run the town in the next 10 to 20 years?

De-organization will offer residents a number of favorable, long-term alternatives, such as school choice and lower taxes, which are not available to them now. These alternatives arguably come at the price of turning local control over to the county and thus losing the ability to vote and conduct town business locally. With the Nov. 5 vote looming, it is very important for the residents of Atkinson to seriously consider the facts related to this matter. For that reason, I am asking Atkinson voters to consider the following.

School Choice: During the 1960s when the SADs were being formed, Atkinson's most pressing need was to have its own elementary school. SAD 41's promise of a local school is the greatest reason why Atkinson's decision-makers chose to join the district.The sacrifice and inconvenience of busing their older children farther away to Milo was worth the promise of an elementary school in town for the youngsters.

In the early 1990s, SAD 41 backed out of their promise to provide a school in Atkinson and closed the doors of Atkinson Elementary forever. Atkinson is not alone in losing their school. The abolishment of small-town elementary schools appears to be the trend right now in Maine. This is likely driven by Augusta's long-term population data for the region.

In 1992 Atkinson had 68 students enrolled in school at a cost of $1224 per student. This year, Atkinson has 40 students enrolled at a cost of $4894 per student¸the cost has quadrupled in just 10 years! Inflation certainly has not quadrupled educational costs in 10 years. However, rising school expenses are the culprit.

Consider what another 10 years of skyrocketing school costs will bring. People are left scratching their heads. No local school, but a quadrupled school tax rate? It is indisputable that the residents of Atkinson are getting far less for their tax dollars than 10 years ago.

De-organizing will result in Atkinson residents having their choice of area schools and therefore more leverage in education-related issues. This allows Atkinson children the opportunity to attend a school which offers Latin, Advanced Placement courses, college counseling services, arts, football, track, hockey, and several other programs not offered by the SAD 41 system.

Currently the two seats Atkinson holds on the SAD 41 school board are not equal in weight to one Milo board member's vote. Therefore, the residents of Atkinson really do not have a significant voice in school decisions that are being made¸the closing of Atkinson Elementary being an example of this.

It is important to point out that the lack of school choice alone has hindered the re-sale of property in town and factored into several young couple' decisions on whether or not to buy property and settle in Atkinson. My wife and I have struggled with this issue ourselves and have determined that we likely will not buy property in Atkinson if the current situation remains unchanged.

Taxes: Atkinson's mil rate is currently 18 dollars per thousand with 70 percent of tax revenue going to SAD 41.Greater than 60 percent of Atkinson's land is either in the state tree growth program, open space program, or just plain tax exempt. Both tree growth and open space offer greatly reduced taxes for property owners enrolled in these programs.

The long-term problem is that just 34 percent of Atkinson's properties are taxed at the full rate. With no industry in town, if any more property owners decide to put land in tree growth or open space, there will be a net tax increase for all who are not eligible or do not participate in these programs.

If the town de-organizes the state tax assessor has stated there will be a net tax decrease for everyone. The county mil rate for de-organized towns is currently at $7.97 per thousand. If Atkinson de-organizes, the county mil rate will rise only minimally. It is true that business and farm equipment valued at more than $10,000 will be taxed individually, with depreciation being taken into consideration. Herds of cattle will not be taxed. In any event, Atkinson residents' taxes will still be less than they are now.

My strong interest in the de-organization issue stems from the fact that I was raised in Atkinson and attended school in the SAD 41 system. I also lived and worked in the area until about five years ago. I am an individual who has seriously considered purchasing property in Atkinson in order to come back and live someday.

There are two main reasons why I haven't yet done this. They are school choice and taxes.

Given Atkinson's current circumstances, de-organizing is the right thing to do to improve the town's long-term future. Deorganization will empower residents with the freedom of school choice and much lower taxes. De-organizing will encourage young families in Atkinson to remain residents. It will also encourage young people to move to Atkinson.

Atkinson voters will likely never have another opportunity to address this issue due to present measures being taken in Augusta aimed at discouraging future de-organization efforts. I trust that you will make an informed decision and vote on Nov. 5.

Robert D. Kinney
Temecula, Calif.

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