From a distance

On county government
By AL DIAMON  |  September 28, 2011

Moosehorn Crossing is a long way from . . . well . . . pretty much anywhere.

Actually, it's not too far from Scraggly Lake. But other than that, it's a bit of hike from thinly populated Moosehorn in northern Penobscot County to, for instance, Bangor, which is 155 miles and more than three hours of navigating substandard roads away.

In other words, Moosehorn is a longer drive from Bangor than Bangor is from Portland. More importantly, Bangor and Moosehorn probably have less in common than Bangor and Portland.

Except for one thing.

Both Bangor and Moosehorn are in the same county, Penobscot. Which means that this November, residents of Moosehorn Crossing (assuming there are any — the US Census seems a little uncertain, listing the area as having zero people per square mile) will be allowed to vote on whether the Hollywood Slots racino in Bangor can add table games such as roulette.

I don't live in Moosehorn, Bangor, or anywhere else in Penobscot, so I'm not concerned about how that countywide vote comes out. But I am bothered by the concept of voters in remote outposts like Shin Pond and Grindstone getting to influence the outcome of an issue that doesn't have any social or financial impact outside Greater Bangor. As a resident of Franklin County, I live closer to that area than they do. So how come I can't cast a ballot?

The answer, of course, is that, regardless of distance, I'm a couple of counties away. And in Maine, county lines are important because . . . uh . . . well, they just are.

Those borders were mostly drawn up in colonial times, when the grasp of the local geography was less precise. That explains why Penobscot County is enormous, while Knox County would fit in hedge-fund manager Donald Sussman's living room with space left over for a sizable chunk of Waldo County.

In spite of the arbitrary nature of counties, the governor and the Legislature decreed last session that everyone in Penobscot would get to decide the Hollywood Slots question. Which means the folks (or foxes) in Moosehorn Crossing can help settle that issue, even though they won't have much effect on the outcome, what with most of the county's voters being clustered further south near the racino.

In the end, it probably won't matter to Moosehorn how it turns out, but that's not always the case. Sometimes, those arbitrary county lines can have a big impact on residents of the boonies, in the unpleasant form of higher tax bills.

For example, there's Cumberland County, where the fall ballot will ask voters to approve borrowing $33 million to make improvements to the county-owned civic center, located in Portland. There's no question that facility, opened in 1977, is outdated. There's also little debate over how much of an economic boost that venue provides to the host city, increasing hotel reservations and restaurant bookings by 25 percent or more on days when events are scheduled.

But it's hard to explain why the cost of that bond issue, which will add about five bucks to property-tax bills for every $200,000 of valuation, should fall on residents of Harrison or Bridgton, both about 40 miles and over an hour's drive from the civic center. As one citizen of Harrison told the Lewiston Sun Journal about attending shows or games at the civic center, "I have to leave my house an hour early just so I can get a place in one of the parking garages. I can almost get to an event in Bangor quicker than in Portland."

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