The Working Waterfront

Why Long Island seceded from Portland

Twenty-five years later, reasons and benefits recalled

Test Journo
Posted 2018-07-24
Last Modified 2018-07-24

By Mark Greene

Were you wondering how Long Island is doing 25 years after seceding from the city of Portland? Well, we’ll offer a polite answer: Not bad, thank you.

On the surface many folks still think of the Long Island secession as a tax revolt and one could make some real comparisons to the American Revolution and its causes. But like Long Island, America was not created only because of a tax on tea. Yet make no mistake—the match in the gasoline was a massive property tax increase on Portland’s island properties, which were appreciating at astronomical rates in the late 1980s.

But the real causes were much deeper and a long time brewing before the match got dropped. While it’s nostalgic to look back on the pre-secession days when Portland virtually ignored the outer islands of Casco Bay—and let us get away with very little oversight—it also was a time the city provided very little in the way of services.              

Through the 1970s and 1980s, what few services we had were actually disappearing. But we found that the community effort to retain those services far exceeded what it took to just doing things ourselves, the way many rural communities do. Our access to the decision-making was remote and pretty much inaccessible, unless you cared to take a hotel room in Portland for the night and go to a city council meeting for your three minutes of fame to present your case.

There was little to no financial support for our all-volunteer fire department and ancient equipment, a volunteer community library, as well as no healthcare services, poor roads, an open dump, no public infrastructure or community buildings except the two-room schoolhouse built by the Navy during World War II.  Two threats during this time period to close the Long Island (and Cliff Island) school were rebuffed with a draining but successful fight.     

While taxes had been creeping up through the years, the tripling of those taxes on most Portland island properties in 1991 made it clear that the days of being ignored with our reasonable demands for some basic services—and being taxed out of your home for that privilege—were over. Most working folks were genuinely afraid of not being able to stay on.

As we celebrate the 25thanniversary of our incorporation day of July 1, 1993, there are many differences to be seen in what is now the town of Long Island. On that election day on Nov. 3, 1991 when Long Island residents cast referendum votes to stay or go, they were not voting for any real tax decrease.

Setting up a new town was not cheap. The massive separation debt handed to us through binding arbitration (read: we had to pay the city for all the things we never had) drove the first new town tax bills, and they landed pretty close to where they had been with Portland.

Nonetheless, Long Islanders voted overwhelmingly, 128 to 44, to secede. We were going to have a say in how we spent our tax money and how we governed ourselves locally. Pretty powerful stuff, if you never had it.

The brand new town meeting experience was quite an education for most and our citizens still turn out today, with nearly 100 voters out of 192 residents participating in that purest of democratic institutions.

So many of the things we lacked, we now have. While it is not possible to say that all the good things that have come to Long Island are because of secession, I believe most are.

No. 1 among them is a vibrant community holding its own with a mix of young and old volunteering for all manner of endeavors. No one moves off Long Island because of taxes—they are now a third of what they would be if we were still part of the city.

We have modern, well-funded fire and rescue and our own dedicated high-speed rescue boat that has taken the time to get to mainland medical help from hours to 15 minutes. We are soon opening a wellness center for medical needs. The school is thriving and has a large library addition and function rooms. A new community center opened last year.

We now have year round floats for access that we lacked before. We fund such things as a library, historical society, aging in place initiatives, and many other services we never had before. We have state representatives and senators who now give us attention as a municipality that we never enjoyed before.

While such things are important to us, I believe the most significant outcome of this move to incorporation is the decision making process being where it belongs—on Long Island.   

Mark Greene is a resident of Long Island who also serves on the Maine Islands Coalition, representing his town.


Children enjoy pizza at the June 30 event celebrating Long Island’s independence.