Monday, February 27, 2006

Chebeague secessionists hope efforts will fly with state

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


A PUBLIC HEARING on LD 1735, an act to authorize Chebeague Island to secede from the town of Cumberland, will be held before the State and Local Government Committee beginning at 9 a.m. Friday in Room 208 of the Cross Office Building in Augusta.

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Chebeague islanders in the last few months have turned local opponents into supporters when it comes to their plan to break away from Cumberland. The financial agreements they've forged with the town and the school district have won them the blessings of mainland officials in their effort to secede.

But the islanders' ultimate test in their quest to sever the island's 185-year tie with Cumberland begins this week: They must convince state lawmakers to let them go.

A public hearing on Chebeague secession is scheduled for Friday morning before the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee.

"It's out of our hands after March 3 and it's in the hands of the Legislature," said Cumberland Town Manager William Shane. "History is very close to being made."

But it's not yet clear how the history of this secession movement will unfold. Some legislators favor a vote to let Chebeague go because the town of Cumberland and the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district have gone from opposing the island's leaving to now agreeing to it.

However, other lawmakers worry that a vote to let Chebeague become its own town on July 1, 2007, could have implications that reach far beyond the shores of Chebeague, the largest island in Casco Bay.

They say creating a new town of Chebeague with its own school sends the wrong message at a time when the state has set a goal of regionalizing and consolidating town services and school districts.

"We should be creating fewer towns and fewer school districts, not more," said Sen. Karl Turner, a Republican from Cumberland.

Also, some legislators fear that approving secession for Chebeague might set a precedent they would feel they had to follow when it comes to considering future secession requests. For example, a movement on Peaks Island to secede from Portland is making headway, and it's possible a secession bill regarding that Casco Bay island could come before the Legislature next session.

Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, said he's concerned that a vote to approve Chebeague secession would set "an awkward precedent for the Portland delegation."

However, Rep. Terrence McKenney, R-Cumberland, the secession bill's main sponsor, dismissed concerns about precedent. "People could say that about everything we do up (in Augusta)," he said. He said legislators should consider each secession request "as a separate entity."

Regarding consolidation and regionalization, McKenney said: "I don't think the addition of one more town is going to throw any consolidation effort into a turmoil." He said the new town of Chebeague could share resources and services with mainland communities and other islands, something which islanders say they plan to do.

Legislators have varying opinions on how the bill will fare.

Cummings, the House majority leader, believes lawmakers are divided on secession and that the bill will stimulate a lot of debate before the full Legislature. "I think there will be a relatively close vote," he predicted. "There will be a lot of mixed feelings."

But McKenney said he has a bipartisan list of sponsors supporting his bill. "I think it looks very favorable," he said of the bill's chances.

No legislative decision is expected this week. After the public hearing on Friday, the State and Local Government Committee will schedule a work session to discuss the issue and vote on it. Unless it's killed, the bill would go before the full Legislature before the session ends this spring.

Under Maine law governing the secession process, the Legislature has the final say on whether a Maine territory is allowed to secede.

Chebeague islanders launched their secession effort last spring after the school district, formally known as Maine School Administrative District 51, proposed reducing operations at the island's tiny elementary school.

That caused islanders to fear that the school would close and young families would move away, spelling the demise of their year-round community of 350. A century ago, Maine had 300 islands that were inhabited year-round. Now Chebeague is one of only 15 year-round island communities.

In a nonbinding referendum in November, 86 percent of Chebeague islanders voted to sever their ties with Cumberland. However, on the mainland, 53 percent of residents voted against secession. Town councilors said they opposed letting Chebeague leave, largely because of the island's plan to take with it 16 small islands or parts of islands that also are part of Cumberland.

However, islanders and the town recently negotiated an agreement to divide up such assets and debts in a way that wouldn't raise taxes for mainland residents.

Its highlights include Chebeague's paying Cumberland $1.3 million when it secedes, and also giving the town half the property taxes from the islands for the next 50 years. The Town Council tentatively approved the agreement last month and is scheduled to take a final vote on it today. Shane, the town manager, said he expects it to pass.

In the meantime, the SAD 51 school board voted Feb. 17 to approve its own financial agreement with Chebeague. The agreement won't raise taxes for residents of North Yarmouth and mainland Cumberland.

Under its terms, Chebeague would pay SAD 51 $3.5 million when it secedes and assume a share of the district's bonded debt. Chebeague would own the elementary school on the island and continue to send its students in grades 6-12 to the mainland to SAD 51 schools without additional tuition for seven years after secession.

SAD 51 also would get $940,000 more in state school funding because of the loss of island property value. That is a concern for Turner and Cummings, who say that giving that state money to SAD 51 will mean less for other school districts. "That is not insignificant," Cummings said.

Still, he agreed with other lawmakers that the fact that Chebeague has forged the agreements with the town and the school district will help it in Augusta.

"I think the fact that the town of Cumberland and Chebeague have come to a mutual agreement is significant because normally in those situations, they don't," said Cummings, who said he remains undecided on how he would vote on secession. "I think that's an important step for them politically."

Rep. Robert Crosthwaite, R-Ellsworth, the ranking minority member on the State and Local Government Committee, said the agreements show this is something that both islanders and mainlanders support and that state lawmakers should honor that and vote in favor of secession.

"I think home rule needs to be upheld," he said. "The townsfolk have spoken and we need to listen."

Rep. Christopher Barstow, D-Gorham and the House chairman of the committee, said he finds the agreements "very compelling," but said he is undecided about how he will vote.

Barstow is House chairman of the governor's Intergovernmental Advisory Commission, a group whose goals include creating more incentives for local and regional governments to cooperate. So he said that one thing that will influence his vote is how much Chebeague plans to work cooperatively with other communities to deliver services.

Sen. Elizabeth Schneider of Penobscot, a Democrat who is Senate chairwoman of the State and Local Government Committee, also is undecided. She said she would be reluctant to support any territory that wants to secede because of high taxes.

"If I find it's largely tax-motivated, I will be extremely cautious in my support of it because I don't think that's the answer to lowering taxes," Schneider said.

However, Barstow said he believes that in Chebeague's case, "this is more than a tax issue."

He and other legislators visited Chebeague a few months ago at the invitation of islanders and Barstow said he was impressed with how self-sufficient the island seemed. "I felt that in a way it was already a town

in itself," he said.

Beverly Johnson, a Chebeague island resident who is one of the leaders of the secession effort, said it's about self-governance, not taxes. Islanders' taxes won't decrease if the island becomes independent, and they may even rise slightly, she said.

"The basic thing is that it's the survival of our community," Johnson said.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at: