War of Secession

Barn, Aroostook County

On the outskirts of the small city of Caribou, some folks want to lower their taxes by going it alone.

By Edgar Allen Beem
[C]omplaints about property taxes in Maine are as common as blackflies, but it’s not every day that the complainants organize a secession movement to avoid paying for municipal services. That’s exactly what some Caribou residents are doing: proposing that rural Caribou secede from urban Caribou to form the new town of Lyndon.

Hold on, you might be thinking — there’s an “urban” Caribou? The second-largest city in predominantly rural and agricultural Aroostook County (after Presque Isle), Caribou has just 8,000 residents. But secessionists are framing their separatist movement as a town-versus-country dispute, alleging an anti-rural bias.

“Presently,” the dissidents have written, “a condition exists where about 31 percent of Caribou’s rural population resides in the Territory and pays taxes amounting to nearly 40 percent of all the revenue raised from property taxes citywide, yet receives less than half of the services that are provided to urban citizens!” This from a report submitted to the city council in June by a body known as the Caribou Secession Committee. Its five members, the report explains, were appointed by a group of some 20 Caribou residents, described as bipartisan fiscal conservatives “defending ourselves from a city government that has for far too long ignored the needs of the rural community and treats us as second-class citizens.”

[infobox maintitle=”Bipartisan fiscal conservatives defending ourselves from a city government that has for far too long ignored the needs of the rural community and treats us as second-class citizens.” subtitle=”” bg=”black” color=”white” opacity=”off” space=”60″ link=”no link”]

The report goes on to list examples of services that rural residents miss out on, including “the swimming pool, the Wellness and Recreation Center, General Aviation Airport, fire hydrants and police patrols, free public parking lots and their maintenance, spring cleanup and brush removal, winter carnival, Thursdays on Sweden Street parties, etc.”

Paul Camping is spokesman for the Caribou Secession Committee, a former police officer from Rochester, New York, who retired to Caribou in 2007.

“All the money taken from the rural people is spent in the urban compact area,” Camping says. “In the urban compact zone, you are important. If you are outside the urban compact zone, you are not. We feel that.”

City officials, for their part, respond that rural residents pay 40 percent of property taxes because they own 80 percent of Caribou’s land. What’s more, says Caribou mayor Gary Aiken, all of the services that the secession committee cites — the airport, the parking, the rec center, and all the rest — are very much available to the town’s rural residents. They just have to come into town to use them.

But in addition to accusing the city of an anti-rural bias, the Caribou secessionists complain that taxes are too high, that municipal employees are overpaid, and that citizens don’t have enough say in city government. They advocate a return to a town meeting form of government, away from the council-manager model the city adopted in 1967.

[infobox maintitle=”Caribou, at times, is run more like a country club than a municipality.” subtitle=”Paul Camping, spokesman for the Caribou Secession Committee” bg=”black” color=”white” opacity=”off” space=”60″ link=”no link”]

“There is a culture of taxation here in northern Maine,” says Camping. “Some communities here are judicious with taxing. Then there is Caribou. Caribou goes first-class all the way. . . . Caribou, at times, is run more like a country club than a municipality.”

[T]he proposed town of Lyndon — which was Caribou’s original name in the 19th century — would have a population of about 2,600 and, according to Camping, could function with a mill rate of $15.90 per thousand dollars of valuation, compared to Caribou’s mill rate of $22.46. The Lyndonites would accomplish this by doing without some amenities and by contracting for things like police service and road maintenance.

“We would look a lot like Limestone, Woodland, and Washburn,” says Camping. “Those are farming towns. We compare ourselves to them.”

The road to secession began several years ago with the formation of Caribou Concerned Citizens for Responsible City Management, a group that demanded greater transparency from the former city manager and city council. One of the Concerned Citizens’ demands was that the city adopt something called zero-base budgeting, a form of budgeting that requires every line item in a budget to start at zero each year and be justified. Municipal budgets are more often developed using an incremental spreadsheet method, in which the previous year’s amounts are the starting point and only changes to line items are evaluated.

In 2011, Caribou formed a charter commission to look into zero-based budgeting, among many other things, but members of the Concerned Citizens who ran for seats on that charter commission were defeated. “The charter was revamped, and zero-based budgeting was not included,” says Camping. “They didn’t want to give up any power. That’s the crux of the matter.”

[infobox maintitle=”City leaders tend to see the secession movement as sour grapes on the part of people who have been unable to prevail at the ballot box.” subtitle=”” bg=”black” color=”white” opacity=”off” space=”60″ link=”no link”]

But the charter commission’s chair, Patricia Collins, says the commission considered zero-based budgeting and many other citizen proposals before ultimately drafting a charter revision that was approved by voters. Collins, a former Caribou mayor and mother of U.S. Senator Susan Collins, says the secession leaders “are all in favor of democracy — as long as it’s what they want.”

The two sides in the secession debate disagree on just about everything, including how much support actually exists for secession. In March, the secession committee submitted a petition signed by 1,315 residents in the territory that would become Lyndon, but city officials question whether residents knew what they were signing.

“I have talked to a large number of people who signed the petition,” says city manager Austin Bleess, who came to Caribou in October 2012 from Winnebago, Minnesota, where he was the city administrator. “They tell me the petition circulators didn’t say anything about secession. They said they were told the petition was just to get a meeting with the city council about property taxes.”

City leaders tend to see the secession movement as sour grapes on the part of people who have been unable to prevail at the ballot box. “Several of the comments made by the committee members at meetings with the city council were related to the fact they were unhappy the popular vote on various issues did not go the way they had hoped it would,” Bleess says.

[infobox maintitle=”They say rural Caribou is being discriminated against, but that’s just not the case.” subtitle=”Cuppy Johndro, an x-ray technician and photographer who lives in the secession territory” bg=”black” color=”white” opacity=”off” space=”60″ link=”no link”]

Mayor Aiken leveled this criticism directly at a July 7 workshop called to discuss how secession might be avoided. Aiken sat on one side of the table with his fellow city councilors.

“You seem to have a problem with being outvoted,” he told the secessionists sitting across from him.

“We are voting to secede!” shot back secession committee member Maynard St. Peter, a retired furniture salesman and lifelong Caribou resident. “We’ve only got one option now; it’s to secede.”

Camping denies that any petition signers were misled. Support for secession is strong, he says, and the only way to know exactly how much support exists is to hold a referendum. His committee expects to have a secession bill submitted to the state legislature in January and hopes to hold a referendum vote next June. Only the residents of the seceding territory would be permitted to vote in a referendum. If they do vote to secede, the city council would then vote on whether to allow the secession. If the city council were to deny it, a mediation process is required. Final approval for the secession would fall to the state legislature.

[I]n the last 40 years, a handful of Maine communities have pursued secession, some of them successfully. Island communities have made convincing cases for secession by virtue of being physically removed from their mainland communities and, accordingly, having different priorities and needs. Long Island seceded from Portland in 1993. The summer colony on Frye Island in Sebago Lake seceded from Standish in 1997. Chebeague Island seceded from Cumberland in 2006. In both 2007 and 2011, Peaks Island residents voted not to secede from Portland.

Other communities have appealed for succession on similar grounds as the would-be-Lyndonites. When Ogunquit successfully seceded from Wells in 1979, it was in the name of home rule and control over taxes. In the 1990s, residents in the largely seasonal neighborhoods of Biddeford Pool, Fortunes Rocks, and Granite Point unsuccessfully pursued secession from Biddeford because they felt they were paying taxes for services they weren’t getting.

[infobox maintitle=”Who wants to move into a town that is being torn apart? What they are doing is just heartbreaking to some people.” subtitle=”Joan Theriault” bg=”black” color=”white” opacity=”off” space=”60″ link=”no link”]

Of course, not everyone in rural Caribou feels they’re being swindled. Cuppy Johndro, an x-ray technician and photographer who lives in the secession territory, administers a Caribou United page on Facebook. “They say rural Caribou is being discriminated against,” says Johndro, “but that’s just not the case.”

Johndro says she’s disturbed that secession committee members seem to think they shouldn’t have to pay for services they don’t use or that aren’t right in their backyard. “Next time you go to the post office,” she says, “don’t walk on the sidewalk.”

Joan Theriault also lives in the secession territory and opposes secession. “I am in Lyndon, and I do not want to be part of Lyndon,” she says. “I want to live in Caribou.” Theriault was a member of the concerned citizens group who failed to win a seat on the charter commission. “That’s democracy,” she says.

Theriault did get a city council seat, however, first by appointment, then by election. She says her concerns about an unresponsive council and city manager are gone, and she praises both city manager Bleess and her fellow councilors for their openness. “We’ve got a good council,” she says. “Caribou is the best it’s been in years.”

Theriault is concerned about the message the secession movement sends about Caribou. “I worry about real estate,” says Theriault, who operates a mobile home park with her husband. “Who wants to move into a town that is being torn apart? What they are doing is just heartbreaking to some people.”

[infobox maintitle=”If our municipality is split in two, is that a bad thing? It’s a win-win as far as we’re concerned.” subtitle=”Paul Camping” bg=”black” color=”white” opacity=”off” space=”60″ link=”no link”]

But Camping, who owns 80 acres on the outskirts of town, says that it’s high taxes that deter newcomers. He doesn’t think he could sell his house if he wanted to. “[Property taxes] are giving people a reason to leave rather than a reason to stay,” he says.

In an op-ed titled “Can I Secede?” published in the Aroostook Republican, Mayor Aiken parodied his town’s secession movement. “I have lived in Caribou for 15 years,” he wrote. “I have never had a child in the school system here. I have never called the police department or the fire department. I do not use the library or the rec center. There isn’t a streetlight or fire hydrant in front of my property. I do not use the pool or the snowmobile trails. I have never received Section 8 housing or general assistance. I have not used the airport. I’ve had no need for the emergency management system. To top it all off, the city puts their snow on my property every winter when they clean their sidewalks, and I have to pay someone to clean up the mess every spring. If anyone has a reason for secession, it’s me.”

Aiken says the city council conducted a survey at the polls in which 85 percent of respondents said they were happy with the level of community services or wanted additional services. (Camping calls the council survey “unprofessional and slanted.”) Bleess, meanwhile, fears that the secession movement has brought uncompromising Washington-style politics to Caribou. He doesn’t thinks the state legislature will want to set a precedent for rural secession by authorizing Lyndon to proceed with secession.

“If it happened,” says Bleess, “you may see other pieces of communities try to secede as well.”

That prospect suits Paul Camping and his fellow secessionists just fine.

“If our municipality is split in two, is that a bad thing?” he asks. “It’s a win-win as far as we’re concerned.”

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Photograph of Aroostook County barn by reader, rdesjardins.