March 29, 2020

New rules to help territories organize Commission plans for unorganized areas’ growth

DOVER-FOXCROFT – A legislative commission studying the cost and reimbursement of services to the Unorganized Territory has suggested the need for a reverse deorganization law that would allow contiguous populated pockets in the Unorganized Territory to organize into a municipality.Just as some smaller communities are willing to give up local control by deorganizing, the commission thinks there may be populated segments in the Unorganized Territory willing to organize to gain local control.

The proposal would be to provide incentives such as giving the newly organized town any schools or municipal-type structures within the area.

If such a law were devised, property owners in specific locations could petition the Legislature to organize, Doreen Sheive, UT fiscal administrator and commission member, predicted Tuesday during a commission meeting in Augusta.

Outside the meeting, Sheive cited an example of Rockwood, Tomhegan, and Taunton and Raynham townships in Somerset County, which could organize because they have a combined population of about 300 and a valuation of more than $150 million. Rockwood also has a school and a fire department.

The reverse deorganization law was one of many draft recommendations reviewed on Tuesday by some of the 17 commission members.

The group had expected to finalize the recommendations this week for submission to the Legislature for consideration, but found some areas needed revision. Another meeting will be held next month.

For months now, the commission has studied the needs, services, and costs in the Unorganized Territory, where growth has outpaced funding for governmental services. About 8,000 people live in the approximately 9.4 million acres of Unorganized Territory in the state.

“There are changing dynamics taking place in the Unorganized Territory,” Millinocket resident Charlie Pray, former Maine Senate president, said Tuesday.

Pray, a commission member who represents landowners with more than 5,000 acres, is joined by six legislative members, five state agency heads, two county government officials, and three other landowners.

“It’s changing quickly,” Pray said of the Unorganized Territory.

Pray said any increase in services in the Unorganized Territory should be assessed to those causing the changes. The whole idea is to protect and preserve the land, much of which is timberland, he said.

“It’s a balancing act and we’re looking at that,” Pray said.

What the commission has learned is there is no uniformity in services and no set policy, according to Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, who sponsored the legislation for the study.

For example, the commission learned that Rangeley Plantation in Franklin County, population 123, has ignored the approximately $35,000 it owes to LURC for services provided since 2004.

The only penalty provided by statute is the withholding of revenue sharing, which is far less than the bill.

Two methods discussed to encourage a community to pay its fair share would be to either refuse services or to implement a higher fee structure. Just what avenue to take has not yet been decided.

Other recommendations under consideration include:

. The restoration of four LURC field positions cut in 2003-2004, and increasing costs to the Unorganized Territory, plantations and towns where LURC is responsible for the planning.

. The addition of four Maine Forest Service positions and the need to replace two aging helicopters, the cost of which should not be solely funded by Unorganized Territory.

. Allowing counties to charge a service fee to recipients of municipal services such as solid waste, structural fire protection and emergency medical services. The move would be fairer to those taxpayers, like large owners of timberland, who do not use the services.

. Prohibiting the sporadic use by some counties of borrowing from the Unorganized Territory account to fund the county budget.

. Consolidating some of the schools in the Unorganized Territory that are near organized communities.

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