July 26, 2014 / 12:17 AM / in 3 years

Tiny city of Caribou, Maine, faces secessionist movement

A sign welcoming visitors to Caribou, Maine is seen in this picture taken July 18, 2014. Citing amenities such as an airport and recreation center as evidence of excessive spending by the city government, a group of Caribou residents have started a movement to secede from the northeastern most U.S. City and undo a municipal merger which took place in the 19th century. REUTERS/Dave Sherwood

CARIBOU Maine (Reuters) - The city of Caribou, Maine, is home to less than 8,000 people, dozens of potato farms and, to the consternation of a small but vocal group of citizens, an airport, a recreation center and groomed snowmobile trails.

Citing those amenities as evidence of excessive spending by city government, a group of Caribou residents have started a movement to secede from the northern Maine city, which is closer to Quebec City than Portland, the state’s largest municipality.

They aim to persuade voters to undo a municipal merger that took place in the 19th century, when Caribou absorbed the town of Lyndon. If secession succeeds, Lyndon would be home to about 2,400 residents, trout-filled rivers and bargain-basement taxes.

“We’ve run out of options,” said Doug Morrell, a secession proponent who runs a local food service equipment company. “These people are writing checks the rest of us can’t pay.”

The move to secede is one of many across the United States in recent years, as angst over taxation - and increasingly polarized politics - has sparked grass-roots activism and a new sense of urgency.

Last year, five Colorado counties voted in a non-binding referendum to secede from the state, and part of rural Maryland announced its intent to split from its metropolitan neighbors. More recently, a California billionaire has launched a bid to split the state into six separate states.

While none of these efforts have succeeded, the idea of breaking up established communities is gaining ground.

“It’s the same sort of motivation that the colonies had ‑ excessive taxation without representation,” said Kit Wellman, an expert on secession at Washington University in St. Louis. “It used to be only nut jobs made these proposals. Now they’re being considered as potentially viable movements.”

A motley crew of 20 Caribou Democrats, Republicans and independents, say a simple principle supports secession: Why should a farmer or rural retiree be asked to pay for sidewalks and park benches that cater to city folk? 

“This is about survival, not politics,” said the group’s spokesman, Paul Camping. “The taxes are driving away business and forcing residents out, too.”

Residents here pay $22.30 in property taxes for every $1,000 of assessed value on their homes, land and businesses, well above the $13.99 state average. The group complains that taxes have been increasing every year to cover what they say is a bloated city payroll.

For 7,952 residents, the city government employs 70 people full-time, including a 16-member police department and 16 public works officials to help plow the 10 feet (3 meters) of snow Caribou sees in the average winter.

WELCOME TO ‘LYNDON’

Secession proponents promise to shave residents’ tax bills by nearly one-third, by sharing services with neighboring towns or privatization.

Skateboarders use the curb outside the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center in Caribou, Maine July 18, 2014. Citing amenities such as an airport and recreation center as evidence of excessive spending by the city government, a group of Caribou residents have started a movement to secede from the northeastern most U.S. City and undo a municipal merger which took place in the 19th century. REUTERS/Dave Sherwood

“What we’re all striving for here is a strong, healthy and sustainable community,” Camping said. “Some people want to make the city center a utopia. But times are tough.”

A recent survey by the city council of 526 of the city’s citizens found a majority content with its services, though most agreed Caribou desperately needs a boost. The economy has been ailing since a nearby Air Force base closed in 1994, taking hefty government salaries with it.

Caribou’s downtown, once thriving, now features multiple thrift shops and vacant storefronts.

But Mayor Gary Aiken, who spent much of his life in the local potato industry, said the city is already pinching pennies.

“In business, the real savings are in merging companies, not splitting them up,” Aiken said. “What is the real cost of starting a new community?”

Slideshow (2 Images)

OVERTAXED TOUR

Secession proponents offer an “overtaxed” tour of Caribou to inquiring journalists, highlighting what they see as the city’s wasteful spending.

The first stop is a local snowmobile trail parking lot, ringed by nine city lights.

“They keep them lit all night but no one comes out here,” said Milo Haney, owner of a local gas station.

Haney also pointed to crews resurfacing the tarmac at the Caribou Airport.

“Why do we need an airport?” he asked.

Haney also contends that the city’s Wellness and Recreation Center is underused.

Secessionists would prefer to see such services privatized, or downsized, but hurdles remain. For secession to become a reality, half of the 2,063 voters who would live in the new community have to sign a petition supporting the idea and then win approval from the state legislature.

Mayor Aiken questioned whether cutbacks, or secession, would solve Caribou’s problem or make them worse.

“Every action has a reaction,” said Aiken. “If we close the rec center, then kids won’t have anywhere to go and we’ll need more police.”

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