Secession hearing turns tense, heads to Augusta

State Representative Sue Austin speaks during a public hearing held to discuss a report from the Gray Secession Committee. 

GRAY — The larger of two groups attempting to secede appeared at a public hearing before the Town Council Tuesday night in what turned out to be a long and occasionally tense forum. 

The Gray Secession Committee wants an area of about 2.8 square miles west of Little Sebago Lake, which they say includes about 160 residential households, to become part of Raymond. 

Group leaders made their presentation during a public hearing that spanned about three hours Tuesday night, emphasizing that they feel geographically disconnected from the rest of the town – and some of its services – by having to travel through Raymond to reach the center of Gray. 

“We have a geographical separation, and it really has led to an identity crisis for many of the residents that live in our area,” said Jennifer White, the secession committee’s chairwoman and spokeswoman. “I’m sure most, if not all of us, have heard of the term ‘Graymond.’ It’s kind of a joke, but it’s really a reality for us.”

“Our friends and family think we live in Raymond, and so do our GPS devices,” White continued. 

White laid out her group’s other reasons for succession, which include long travel times on school buses for middle school and elementary students; fire and rescue services are already provided by Raymond (through a mutual aid agreement with Gray); the distance to downtown Gray discourages participation in community events, local volunteerism, and other town involvement. 

While the secession committee had to get signatures from 51 percent of registered voters in the area to secede in order to move forward with the process, it was apparent Tuesday night that not all the residents want to leave Gray. 

“My primary purpose for speaking here tonight is to dispel any misconception that the board or the public may have that this secession movement has the overwhelming support of residents in the secession territory,” said local resident Sharon Young. 

“Many of those signatures (on the secession petition) are that of residents who signed in order to get a conversation flowing,” Young continued. “Many signed the petition who do not support seceding.”  

One of the more contentious issues surrounding the proposed secession is the potential impact on local taxpayers. According to the secession presentation, which cited data from the Gray tax assessor, the total taxable value in Gray for 2017 is just under $743 million.

The value in the proposed secession area is over $76 million, meaning if the properties were taken off Gray’s tax rolls, they would take more than 10 percent of the town’s property tax base with them. 

White conceded the town’s tax rate could go up if the territory succeeds in seceding. But White also said it’s not possible to know the full impact secession would have on Gray because the town is still in the process of property reevaluation. 

Gray resident Dan Cobb had a different take on the tax information in the committee’s proposal.

“Stated another way, this in an 11.5 percent increase for every remaining citizen of Gray. Is this protecting the rights of all citizens? I don’t think so,” Cobb said. 

A smaller group attempting to secede from Gray, the Mount Hunger Shore Secession Committee, would like to join Windham. That group had its public hearing before the Town Council in February.

The atmosphere at Tuesday’s hearing was slightly different, and not just because of the packed house, with about 50 people in the audience compared to a smaller crowd at the previous hearing for the Mount Hunger Shore group

Perhaps one of the more notable moments Tuesday night was an exchange between Town Councilor Richard Barter and state Rep. Sue Austin, R-Gray, who introduced legislation in Augusta related to the secession process. 

Austin has introduced two legislative resolves, LD 618 and LD 619, that could provide permission for the secession areas in Gray to move forward with local referenda.

Barter expressed frustration and suggested that Austin had accelerated the process before the town could have a chance to resolve the issue locally. Austin explained during the hearing that she works as a legislator to be an impartial conduit to help her constituents exercise their rights, including their right to at least explore the secession process laid out under Maine statute. She stressed that the legislation she introduced simply allows the secession groups to begin the process, and there is no perfect time to start. 

Bottom line: there are still several steps to play out in a long process. Plenty of chances remain for it to be derailed, but the Gray secession train will pull into Augusta on Monday, March 21, starting at 1 p.m., when both secession groups will have a hearing before the legislature’s Committee on State and Local Government. 

After the Legislature hears arguments from both sides at Monday’s hearing, it will then have two different opportunities to approve or turn down the bids for secession. If the Legislature eventually gives one or both secession groups permission to proceed, there must be a referendum within the proposed secession territory (or territories). 

The Gray Town Council may also choose to hold a town-wide referendum if either secession effort reaches the referendum level. Those referenda are meant to inform the legislature, which ultimately makes the final decision.

State Representative Sue Austin speaks during a public hearing held to discuss a report from the Gray Secession Committee.