Campaigns revving up for merger debate

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Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, speaks to a crowd gathered at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn in February. The group’s next meeting is Thursday, March 30, at the Sixth Street Congregational Church in New Auburn. 

AUBURN — The debate over the proposed merger of the Twin Cities has only just begun.

Soon, campaigns for and against the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger will roll out more pointed arguments as the push toward a November referendum moves ahead. 

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In the meantime, the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation is holding a public meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at the Sixth Street Congregational Church in Auburn, the second meeting held by the group since the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission presented its recommendations for the merger in January. 

Since then, the opposition group led by former Lewiston Mayor James Howaniec has been gathering support for its cause. The group unveiled a 20-point rebuttal to the Charter Commission’s findings last month, arguing that a merger would ultimately be more costly for taxpayers on both sides of the river. 

Coalition Vice Chairman Leroy Walker, an Auburn city councilor, said Tuesday that Thursday’s meeting will hopefully represent a broader base of the group’s supporters. He said Howaniec also has new information that he may bring forward that could bolster the argument against the merger. 

“Taxes will go up,” Walker said. “The costs of running a bigger city will be more expensive. We just don’t see the savings.” 

The group’s first public meeting following the Charter Commission’s study results yielded a strong turnout at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn, but many in the older-leaning crowd commented on the need for a younger and more varied presence. 

According to Howaniec, there will also be upcoming events in Lewiston, where he believes the proposed merger would have an even greater negative impact.

Lewiston City Councilor Shane Bouchard and mayoral candidate Ron Potvin are also members of the coalition. 

“We have noticed that we’re receiving more calls and comments of concern from the public as attention has begun to focus on the merger issue,” Howaniec said in an email Tuesday. “Our goal is to present more data to the audience in Auburn on Thursday night. We believe that the public is really only beginning to focus in on the specifics of this proposal and we want to get as much information out there as possible.” 

Howaniec said he’s in discussions with the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which he said is recognizing the issue as “perhaps the biggest issue that the two cities have ever faced.”

He said there may be an upcoming series of chamber-sponsored forums to discuss the pros and cons of a merger. 

The Charter Commission will soon have its own, separate political arm for the pro-merger campaign, Charter Commission Chairman Gene Geiger said Tuesday. 

He said the commission will be in “communication and education mode,” while a new political group in support of the merger will be holding a news conference in a few weeks.

The elected members of the commission have been drafting a joint charter since 2014, and a recent study by consulting firm CGR says a merger could save the cities between $2.3 and $4.2 million a year. 

Geiger said the commission would like to act separately from the political campaigns, even if the commission’s task is to take a position on the merger question. 

If voters from both cities approve the measure, a 26-month transition process would take place. A transition task force made up of city officials and residents from each city would work to implement the findings. 

A 10-member City Council and mayor would lead the combined city beginning Jan. 2, 2020. 

The next task for the Charter Commission, however, is what to call the consolidated city. Lewiston-Auburn? Great Falls? Geiger said the group will be rolling out a public and “lively” discussion to get ideas for what name would be supported. 

“We’d like to know what people think would be a comfortable fit for our cities, their history and heritage going forward,” he said. 

On Monday, the Charter Commission discussed upcoming outreach efforts during its monthly meeting. 

While Thursday’s meeting is the next forum for the opposition group, Walker said there are already another dozen speaking events planned, including a fundraiser in the works for either May or June. He said the group’s goal is to raise $3,000 to $5,000 for the final campaign push. 

Walker said he and Howaniec will appear on Great Falls TV on Wednesday to discuss the merger. 

“Whenever you want a meeting, you put a date and a time out there and we’ll pull the group together,” Walker said. 

arice@sunjournal.com

• The Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation is hosting a public meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at the Sixth Street Congregational Church in New Auburn.

• The full report and findings of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission are available on the commission’s website.

• The response from the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation can be found here

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