Luke and taxes

Editorial Notebook

March 20, 2004|By Peter Jensen

THE DEATH of a company town usually starts with the death of a company. But what happens when the town starts dying first? They know the answer in the tiny milltown of Luke in the lower left-hand corner of Western Maryland's Allegany County. Things get ugly.

Greedy. Irresponsible. Selfish. That's what a lot of people are calling the 80 or so residents of Luke for holding onto their way of life. Most every other elected official from the area has denounced the town's elected mayor and council. So have the local newspapers. Legislation pending in Annapolis would strip the town of half its budget. Some opponents would go further: They'd like to see the town unincorporated -- wiped from the planet. And who has led the charge against this company town? To the town's horror, it's been the company.

The company is MeadWestvaco Corp., owners of the Luke paper mill. There's been a paper mill on this narrow bend on the Potomac River since the 18th century, a Westvaco plant since the 1880s. A descendent of the mill's founder still runs the multibillion-dollar company, now based in Connecticut.

Luke didn't become a town until 1922 when the mill created it. The mill built the homes for its workers on a hillside above the plant. The mill supplied the water, the heat and the sewer lines. With its towering smokestack, the steady rumble of pine logs being stripped and chipped, and steam shooting furiously into the air, the mill is an overwhelming presence. Every day, an army of 1,250 millworkers churns out 1,450 tons of coated and carbonless paper, the glossy kind used for magazine covers and soup cans. Today, the workers are all commuters. Luke is just where they happen to park.

What riled the company was the town's recent proposal to raise personal property taxes by 25 percent. The mill expects to pay the town more than $500,000 in taxes this year. That's 95 percent of the town's budget, or about $6,250 for every man, woman and child. That buys the tiny hamlet services that no other Maryland town of its size can claim -- a police chief, two town clerks and two public works employees who fix potholes, write a few traffic tickets, patch water lines, and shovel snow. They even sweep the narrow streets in Luke, all five of them.

But the boulevards of Luke aren't paved with gold. There are no churches here, no businesses, not so much as a gas station. Most of the residents in Luke are retired, living on a fixed income. There's no resale market for homes here. When someone dies, the company usually buys back the house -- and then knocks it down.

From the town's perspective, the issue isn't the size of the personal property tax, it's the size of the town. Seventy years ago, more than 1,000 people lived here. Today, the town is so small it can only exist as a kind of municipal parasite -- feeding on the mill's largess.

Unfortunately, the domestic paper industry is facing hard times. MeadWestvaco lost millions of dollars last year. Foreign competition is stiff, and Allegany has seen manufacturing jobs steadily disappear over the past two decades -- Kelly-Springfield, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Celanese Corp. The mill is the biggest employer left, a $200 million economic engine for the region. It's understandable that emotions run high. The plant has never threatened a shutdown, but who knows?

This much is clear: The solution isn't for the state to step in and decide how best to run the town. Yes, Luke is dying, and its residents must face that. But they also deserve some measure of dignity.

It's up to the town, the mill and Allegany County to find an equitable compromise. The era of the paternal company may be over, but Luke cries out for one last act of nurture -- fair treatment for its few employees and a reasonable quality of life for its remaining residents.

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