Video: Property tax fight in Maine

By Roger O’Neil Correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/4/2004 7:24:27 PM ET 2004-11-05T00:24:27

Mention Maine and most people think of autumn leaves. But the fall foliage masks a troubled landscape.

In Cooper, Maine, citizens say they want to dissolve their town to lower taxes. Going out of business appeals to small places like Cooper, where only 145 people live. With no jobs and an aging population, the tax base is shrinking even though the costs of government keep rising.

"It just got to be more than we could handle," says Sue Dorsey.

Dorsey says that's why the 26 residents of Centerville let the state take over their affairs — everything from education to snow removal.

"There was more to do and less people that wanted to do it," says Dorsey.

Centerville not only locked the door to city hall, it sold it for $3,500.

Since 1980, nine towns in Maine have ceased to be. And more are talking about it. A huge area — half the state — is now part of what's called "the unorganized territory," where there's no local government.

Maine's thriving, picture-postcard coastal towns like Camden stand in stark contrast to its struggling rural neighbors to the north. Often called "the two Maines," the gap seems to be growing between the haves and have-nots.

University of Southern Maine American studies professor Kent Ryden says, while the rugged independence of small-town Mainers is admirable, it doesn't pay the bills.

"To say we're no longer going to be an independent town, we're going to be a ward of the state, it's not an easy thing to do. But as a practical decision it makes a lot of sense," says Ryden.

In every town but one, giving up local control has resulted in lower property taxes.

Once proud to pose as Maine's smallest organized town, Centerville residents say it was never the town hall or the things in it that made the town. It was the people — and they're still here — living souvenirs of a 162-year-old town that died.

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