As Osborn goes …

Osborn Plantation was settled in 1840 as one of several growing “up river” Hancock County communities spread along the branches of the Union River. Saw mills, grist mills and shingle mills lined the river. Farmers worked the fertile valleys.

Osborn became a town in 1976. Today, with a shrinking, older population, its future as an organized Maine town is in jeopardy.

Osborn is not alone. Numerous rural towns in Hancock County, Washington County and throughout the state struggle with increasing tax burdens, mounting regulations and declining populations. These small communities struggle to keep citizens engaged in local government and emergency services. Osborn today is wrestling with the challenge of too few trained, volunteer firefighters. Many other towns find themselves in the same perennial predicament.

At issue is low population density: 1.9 residents per square mile in Osborn, 3.0 residents per square mile in Aurora, a whopping 6.7 residents per square mile in Amherst — the most populated small community up-river in the 1800s, and to this day. With little commercial activity and fewer people employed in farming, residents leave town for work, doctors’ appointments, shopping and entertainment. Urban sprawl, a negative buzzword of the 1990s, would be welcome in these communities. The schools — where they exist — languish with fewer students, thus becoming overly dependent on state aid and subsidies.

Jon Reisman, associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine-Machias, has written extensively about the “hollowing out” of Maine’s small communities. “These towns like to think that they are maintaining a semblance of local control. But they really are reacting to influences out of their control. School budgets, especially special education, have overwhelmed their annual budgeting and tax income, consuming vast sums of money. Fewer young people are embracing rural living, their former farming and commercial bases are gone and their population is conservative, aging and less mobile. If the larger communities’ education needs dictate more subsidy monies, will smaller communities be able to survive on what’s left?” Reisman asked recently.

Smaller towns need to consider consolidation, regionalization and cooperation if they are to survive. School consolidation is a must for these towns — an effort that should continue and expand. And an urgent need exists to create wide-ranging fire districts that can cover multiple communities.

The zeal to maintain local control makes communities reluctant to reach out. But the census trends will not change in the short-term. The larger communities and nearby bedroom towns will continue to attract residents. School funding will remain contentious. Commerce will expand where the people are. Tax revenue will become more difficult to grow. And the smaller towns will continue to “hollow out.”

Rather than individual towns struggling to provide education, fire protection, snowplowing, trash removal and other necessary services, should county government be expanded to supersede local control to create efficiency in rural areas? In many parts of America, county government has that role. It may be a foreign concept here in New England, but it may become necessary for struggling towns that currently are showing the strain of too few volunteers providing too many services for too few residents.

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