By Jaime McLeod
Islanders vote overwhelmingly in favor of self-governance
CUMBERLAND Chebeague Island residents moved one step closer on Election day to seeing their island become its own town.
Whether secession occurs or not, and which islands a final secession territory may include, is now in the hands of town councilors and, eventually, the state Legislature.
Of the 287 islanders who cast ballots at the Chebeague Island Hall on Tuesday, 246, or 86 percent, were in favor of the island seceding from mainland Cumberland.
The verdict among mainland voters, whose responses have no official impact on the outcome of the secession, but whose opinions will likely weigh on members of the council as they negotiate with secessionists, was less decisive.
While the majority of mainland voters did not favor secession, there were only 1,507 votes against secession, or 53 percent of the mainland's 2,864 ballots. When combined, island and mainland votes supported secession, 1,603 to 1,548.
Councilor Donna Damon, who holds Chebeague Island's seat, said she was encouraged by the large number of mainland voters who did support secession, despite the likelihood of a tax increase.
"A lot of people were willing to say 'If this is what Chebeague wants, they should have it.' I think that's a positive thing," said Damon, who has been an outspoken supporter of secession.
The secession movement gained momentum last February, after the board of School Administrative District 51 discussed the possibility of reducing the already tiny Chebeague Island School, a kindergarten through fifth-grade school that serves the island's 22 elementary school students, to one classroom, with fourth- and fifth-grade students to be shipped to the mainland.
Other issues include islanders' perception that their property tax burden in disproportionate. If the island remains part of Cumberland, many of its property owners could be facing a tax increase of about 31 percent during the next assessment. That's because homes on the island are estimated to be assessed at about 53 percent of their actual values.
Secession representatives say the inability to afford high property taxes is another factor that drives residents from the island, threatening its viability as a year-round community.
Though one of the driving factors of the secession movement is the desire to guarantee the continued existence of the Chebeague Island School, it remains unclear whether secession would sever the proposed new town's ties with SAD 51.
At an Oct. 24 workshop on secession, state Sen. Karl Turner, the ranking minority member on the Legislature's Education Committee, told islanders that if Chebeague secedes from the town, it will still be part of School Administrative District 51.
But Peter Lowe, a Lewiston-based attorney hired by the Chebeague Island Community Association to explore the educational ramifications of secession, disagreed. Lowe said he believes there is compelling evidence that, in absence of any language to the contrary, the Chebeague Island School would become a separate entity after secession.
Great Chebeague Island and the other 16 islands that have been defined as part of the proposed secession territory represent about $2.1 million in property taxes. Of that, about $1.5 million goes to the school district.
If secession does remove the island from the school district, Town Manager Bill Shane said the state would likely provide SAD 51 with about $600,000 in additional funding to offset the loss in property taxes. In addition, more of the burden of funding the school would shift to North Yarmouth property owners, who would be expected to shoulder an additional $300,000 annually.
The result would be a more than $129,000 school tax shortfall that Shane said would in a best case scenario result in a 17-cent increase in the mil rate, or about $51 a year for a property owner with a home assessed at $300,000.
Shane's projections do not include any future tuition agreements between the island and SAD 51, because no negotiations to pay tuition are currently on the table. If the island were to pay about $250,000 per year for its approximately 25 students in grades 6 through 12 to remain in the district, the impact on mainland taxpayers would be greatly reduced.
But sending Chebeague students to Greely middle and high schools may not be an option. School board members told islanders in October the district does not allow tuition students, and the board would require "compelling reasons" to consider changing its policy.
Other possibilities for the island include enrolling students in the Yarmouth School District, which is experiencing a population decline.
If the town refuses to acknowledge the secession territory, the issue will go into mediation until an agreement between the two entities can be reached. At any point, a petition bearing the signatures of a majority of island voters can end the process.
Damon believes islanders and her mainland colleagues should be able to come to an amicable agreement, as long as negotiations are made in good faith with the welfare of both sides in mind.
"If people get petty and start counting golf balls at Val Halla and nuts and bolts at the town garage on Chebeague, that won't be to anyone's advantage," she said.
Jaime McLeod can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or email@example.com.
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