The decline of Maine paper mills is not only costing jobs and economic activity, it’s also erasing the property taxes that for decades have propped up rural communities throughout the state. Without this support, tax rates in those towns are increasing at an unsustainable rate.

It is the latest shot to areas hard-hit by first the changing economy and then the latest recession, where taxpayers already struggle to make ends meet and can hardly absorb a significantly higher tax bill. It is also a reminder that the state needs to do better in replacing the traditional industries that long gave rural Maine its identity but are no longer enough.

The paper mills in Maine have been losing value for some time, but it is only now catching up with many towns, as many of them conduct revaluations on mill properties for the first time in a decade or so.

In Madison, the value of Madison Paper Industries, the town’s largest taxpayer, dropped from $229.7 million to $80 million. At a special town meeting last week, residents approved the establishment of a $2.5 million line of credit to help lower the tax rate, which was expected to jump about 30 percent. Even with the use of the loan, the tax rate may increase as much as 14 percent.

In Skowhegan, where Sappi Fine Paper North America paid 53 percent of total town property taxes last year, a revaluation dropped the assessed value of that mill from $567 million to $463 million.

That alone will raise taxes on a $100,000 home by $75, and there may be more to come. Sappi said last week that the assessed value is still too high, and the matter could end up in court.

And in Jay, the assessed value of the Verso Paper mill is expected to drop by $223 million, from $815.4 million a year ago. In preparation, selectmen reportedly have OK’d a 12.5 percent tax increase. Even with the drop, Verso Paper will account for 64 percent of the town’s property tax collections.

Of course, the loss of mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket have left the finances of both those towns in shambles, and the regional economy in tatters.

Earlier this summer, East Millinocket residents OK’d a 23 percent increase in the tax rate. If the mill there stays closed, its property value will plummet, and the town would have to increase the tax rate another 37 percent just to maintain the same budget.

In the situation in Millinocket, other mill towns should see their future. Not to that degree, perhaps, but the mills will never support the same number of jobs, produce the same amount of paper, or pay the same amount in property taxes as in years past.

Without something to replace the mills, maybe not entirely but in some small part, the tax rates in these communities will continue to rise, even as residents become less able to afford them. People will continue to move away, businesses will continue to close, and rural Maine will continue to deteriorate.

There are no easy answers, but Maine needs a renewed effort for bringing new industries to rural part of the state to diversify and rejuvenate the local economies. The days of a single employer lifting up an entire community are long gone.

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