The Value of Friendship Has Gone Up

THE census form wasn't all that burdensome, considering we are but two and have no great complications to report, so it was back in the mail that same afternoon. Then, in a week or so, my cheerful co-owner answered the telephone to be told that I hadn't answered all the questions. She's good at things like that, so she said, ``Oh?'' ``Yes,'' the lady-person voice said. ``You didn't put down the value of your property if offered for sale.''

``That's right.''

It's a great pity to see this absurdity given dignity by a question from Washington. It has become a major irritation here in Maine and bodes no good. It should be accorded the hilarity it merits, but nobody is laughing; I hope other states haven't our problems.

I didn't answer the question as asked for in the census because there is no answer, and if I feigned one I'd consider it no business of the boys in D.C. Real estate taxes are collected by the town on the basis of values locally assessed, and each year the figures are printed in our annual town reports - where anybody may look, and that includes the secretary of commerce.

In late years our longtime ways have been abused, changes have accrued, and somehow the published town values have eroded into this presumption that everything is for sale. Schools, laundered money, frantic desires by well-heeled city people to escape, and many other things have wrought changes in the Maine way of life. When a half acre of seaside ledge will fetch a $100,000 from a New Yorker who wants fresh air at any price, and who comes on to spend as much again to put up a cottage, our foolish statehouse tells us that everything within 10 miles of that ledge is worth $200,000 an acre.

The landed gentry of the vicinity, ordinary Maine folks who farm and fish and cut pulpwood, and perhaps write pleasantly for the journals, didn't know they were flushed with such wealth, and are not happy with new assessments that reflect their true prosperity. They become the richest bankrupts on record. It shudders them to consider a selling price.

I haven't the slightest notion of selling my property. I am not on the water; I am not on a public way. I have a modest house on purpose - we no longer need extra rooms. I pump my own water. I am not on a town sewer. Our children are long out of school. I plow my own snow. But my value grows every time somebody ``from away'' pays $75,000 for another half acre of shore swamp down the road.

The economist who gets a big grant to study this transition in Maine affairs will want to look at our administrative school districts. They've got a lot to do with the selling price. Over many years the professional state educators contrived to consolidate schools so towns lost control. Those letters to the editors begging parents to take more interest in schools aren't aimed at us. We might's-well whistle at the wind.

Our towns no longer vote school appropriations once they join a district. Whereupon the state has a formula for the cost of educating a pupil, and some towns get soaked to smarten youngsters they don't own. The selling price of real estate becomes a gauge of what a town must pay. Our little Friendship is one such town, and what do you suppose the statehouse tells us? It tells us that if we want to get our money's worth, we should breed more children. I can cite time, place, and person.

In the old days before all this budded and burst into profuse bloom the local assessors had a tendency to be kind and understanding. They went easy on old folks living on family land. Once the old folks ``got through'' there would be a new look.

But today an 80-acre farm that has been in the same family since 1608, where Josh and Hattie Higgins are finishing their 80s, is assessed not as their comfortable latter-years home, but as 80 fanciful houselots worth $80,000 apiece, while the state department of human services has the Higginses on the waiting list for a retirement home. The presumptive Higginses are not hard to locate in Maine today; it will be easier tomorrow.

So I didn't fill out that blank for the census bureau. My wife joshed a bit about that with the pleasant lady on the telephone, and the pleasant lady admitted maybe we had a point. My wife told her she had no idea what our place is worth. The lady asked if her husband could help. My wife told her that he (me) maybe could, and maybe couldn't. And she added, ``But I know he won't.''

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