CARY PLANTATION, Maine — Up here, near the end of Interstate 95, a single main road ridged with stately conifers runs past the odd house that at night casts an orange glow over the snow. There is no school. No police department. Not even a stoplight.
But there are property taxes. And some residents say the taxes’ growth has pushed this community of about 200 to the brink. To save Cary Plantation, they say, they want to dismantle it.
“What do you do, what does the town do, when they can’t pay their bills? Do we go bankrupt? Do we lose our homes?’’ asked Diane Cassidy, a former nursing assistant. “There was no answer, other than deorganization.’’
Cassidy is leading an effort to dissolve the local government and join the Unorganized Territory, a vast swath of forest and townships in north, central and eastern Maine run by a partnership between the state and the counties. Last month, residents here voted, 64-0, to continue the process.
At a time of rising municipal costs, local governments around the country are looking for ways to rein in tax bills, pursuing privatization, the consolidation of services, mergers and even bankruptcy.
But in northern Maine, as operating costs have increased, the economy has stagnated and the population has aged and dwindled, a handful of struggling towns have pursued the unusual process of eliminating local government entirely.
In the West, citizens are protesting to constrain government power. And overall, Americans tend to resist ceding their local authority. But these communities are handing their governing power over to the state and the county.
“Knowing how dependent towns are in Maine on the property tax, they may have just reached a point where they’ve decided, ‘We’d be better off just not existing as a town,’’’ said Elizabeth K. Kellar, the chief executive of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence in Washington.
Under state law, dismantling a local government takes 12 complex steps, often over at least two years, including legislative approval and a series of local votes. When a town deorganizes, state agencies and the county administer its services, like snow removal, policing and firefighting. Children are assigned to appropriate schools, often in a nearby district. Town-owned buildings and land are sold or held in trust by the state or the county. And every local government job is eliminated.
Thus, there are no local officials’ salaries to pay and no infrastructure to maintain locally. And the cost of servicing each township is spread across the Unorganized Territory either in each county or statewide.
“It’s basically like a company: There’s so much less overhead,’’ said Paul G. Bernier, the public works director for Aroostook County, who is responsible for overseeing services to the unorganized territories at the very top of Maine. “Sometimes it’s half of what they were paying.’’
In Aroostook County, Bancroft, population 60, completed the process last summer and now exists in name only. Besides Cary Plantation, Oxbow, about an hour northwest, is well on its way, although both have legislative approval and a final vote yet to go. State officials said that an effort to deorganize Atkinson, which began in 2013, may soon take a step forward, and that more municipalities had told the state that they were interested.
“Just the price tag to keep their local governments up and running is more or less untenable,’’ said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine. “It’s the final step in this long, drawn-out process, which really starts with population decline.’’
Marcia McInnis, the fiscal administrator for the Unorganized Territory, estimated there have been 41 deorganizations in Maine’s history, about half of them during the Great Depression. But “it has become recently more common than it has been in the last, really, two decades,’’ she said.
The last town to deorganize before Bancroft was Centerville, population two dozen, in 2004. There have also been deorganization attempts that failed at the local level, often because residents did not want to lose local control, or in some cases did not secure legislative approval.
“I attribute the recent increase in interest in deorganizing as a direct result of the economic Great Recession and in the loss of jobs in the logging industry,’’ McInnis said.
Steve Sherman, a lifelong resident of Oxbow, where roughly 50 people are spread across six miles, began working to disband the government after years of watching the local labor market for papermaking and farming shrink along with the population. In November, 21 residents voted unanimously to move forward with deorganization; a third vote will take place in the future.
“We’re not growing here. We’re headed the other way, it would seem,’’ said Sherman, a logger and Christmas tree farmer. “That’s just life, in northern Maine especially.’’
In Oxbow and in Cary Plantation, local government is already all but gone. Local meetings in Cary are held in Cassidy’s heated garage. With no public building, records are generally stored in officials’ homes. And most services are already contracted out.
“I figure the state can do a better job,’’ Cassidy said.
Other states have unorganized or unincorporated areas, but in Maine about half of the land is Unorganized Territory. The area predates the state itself — it was laid out when Maine was still part of Massachusetts and new settlers were expected to flock there. But the harsh climes of Maine’s wild lands, as they used to be known, never filled out with enough people to self-govern.
“Maine has this oddity of having all of this space in an area of the country that cherishes town meetings and town governments,’’ said Kenneth Palmer, a professor emeritus at the University of Maine. “These tiny towns don’t have enough people to generate the municipal staff to really run the town. It’s this abandonment of a town structure.’’
But some in Cary say deorganizing is a way to give the community a new lease on life, not to abandon it.
“I think it’s going to bring more people in,’’ said Kai Libby, 55, a retired Border Patrol agent who became the town’s first assessor last year to help shepherd the deorganization effort through the multistep process (and thus eliminate his own position).
Libby and his wife, Tina, who led the withdrawal of Cary from its school district, live in the only house on their road, with four dogs and stacks of documents related to deorganization near their kitchen table.
“There’s privacy, and it’s so quiet,’’ said Libby, 51. “We want to stay here. And to do that, it needs to be affordable for us to stay here.’’