Small town, big move; Centerville votes to deorganize

This story was published on March 17, 2004 on Page B1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Centerville’s time as a town is nearly up.

After 162 years, the community is counting the days until it becomes a township on June 30.

With just 26 residents living among 17 households, Centerville is Maine’s smallest town.

In an era when other small towns around the state worry that losing their identities would be the worst outcome – especially if their children end up being schooled in the town next door – Centerville’s residents have deliberately taken steps to change almost everything dear to them.

Their decision did not come with sadness.

Still, faces appeared somber Monday evening at Centerville’s final annual town meeting. Comments stayed close to town business, which mostly involved how to handle finances for the next 100 or so days.

Ten voters turned out, nearly half the 21 registered voters.

But there are no prospects for growth in the town, which is more than four miles from U.S. Route 1, north of Columbia Falls, and a speck amid thousands of acres of blueberry fields and woodland.

Simply, the people in the town’s leadership positions have grown tired of doing all the work that a town entails.

“Nobody really wants the town to go,” said Mary Ellen Gaudette, who has been registrar of voters for years. “But what can we do? A few of us can’t run it, but no one else wants to help out.”

The town’s future had taken a turn for the worse at last year’s annual town meeting. In a surprising twist, the longtime town clerk, tax collector and treasurer quit. She said she was finished forever with town business.

By May, with no one willing to step in for the long run, many had signed a petition as the first step in telling the state that the town wanted to deorganize. After public hearings, then a local referendum last November, the decision was sealed.

On Monday, the reality hit home.

Margaret Dorsey, the first selectman who has agreed to see through the town business until Centerville is no longer a town, wasn’t surprised at the meeting’s attendance.

“Exactly who I thought would be here, was here,” she said.

Things didn’t get personal until business was over and someone set out brownies and soda.

Then it was the way the town used to be, neighbors talking and visiting.

But there were outsiders, too. Washington County Commissioner John Crowley came to the meeting, as did Joyce Thompson, the county clerk. Representatives from the state Bureau of Taxation and the six-town transfer station also attended in case residents had questions about the changes.

The county commissioners will make decisions on behalf of the township, Crowley told them.

Doreen Sheive, an administrator in Augusta, said 417 townships and 76 offshore islands make up the state’s unorganized territories, which cover roughly half the state.

Only 128 of the townships have full-time residents, and the total population of Maine’s unorganized territories is just under 8,000 people. Washington County has 1,315 residents living in its 34 unorganized townships.

In terms of property tax, officials say, 22,000 accounts in the unorganized territories statewide are billed annually.

About a dozen towns across Maine have considered taking steps to deorganize since 1992, but only two – Greenfield and Madrid – have followed through.

Centerville will be next, while Atkinson, population 330 in central Maine, also is starting the process.

Cooper, another Washington County town, is looking at the process for purposes of tax relief.

Thompson, the county clerk, said Tuesday she read plenty of uncertainty in the residents’ faces Monday evening.

“They seemed to be wondering if they will drop off the face of the Earth and become nobodies, or even if the county moves in and tells them what to do,” she said.

“It had to be hard to give up their identity as a town,” Thompson said.

Julian Bagley, who sat on the last bench, already has done the math for the meaning of June 30.

“Centerville stops as a town after 162 years, three months and 14 days,” he said.

But Richard Dorsey, who served as the meeting’s moderator, spoke the real words of impact.

“I guess we’re done,” he said as he took a motion to adjourn.