LEWISTON — Twin Cities voters could settle the big question this November: Should Lewiston and Auburn be one community?
Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce President Chip Morrison said he has taken out matching petitions from the two cities that could trigger a November charter commission vote.
"I've taken them out, but I haven't started passing them yet," Morrison said. "Right now, I'm hoping to pull together a group to see if they are interested in doing that. I think they will be."
If Morrison can collect 1,000 valid signatures from each city by July 1, it will require the cities begin accepting nominations for a six-member charter commission. Voters would select that group at the polls in November.
According to state law, once elected, that group of three Lewiston residents and three Auburn residents would select a name for the combined city and the location of municipal offices, answer questions about debt, real value, tax rates and council terms, and draw up a complete charter.
That consolidation agreement would go out to a series of public meetings and second public referendum.
But Morrison said he's not at that stage yet.
"My plan is to talk to a sizable group of people who have said they are interested in letting the voters decide on this issue," Morrison said.
The two cities have talked about cooperating off and on since 1996. A 2009 study identified $2 million in savings over five years by consolidating administrative positions, police, public works equipment purchases and economic development.
Lewiston Councilor Mark Cayer brought it before a joint Lewiston-Auburn City Council meeting in May. His colleagues promised to consider the idea further at future Joint City Council meetings.
But Morrison's move might cut those talks short.
"The councils' preference was to find out how voters feel about this," Morrison said. "They said that very clearly. Well, the only way I know for sure to find out how voters feel is to ask them. I think the people of Lewiston and Auburn want to be asked. They should be involved because this is a big decision."
A combined Lewiston and Auburn would have a total estimated property valuation — for residential, commercial, industrial and other properties — of $4.26 billion. By comparison, Portland's 2012 assessed valuation is $7.4 billion. The two cities currently have roughly 59,647 residents, according to the 2010 census. Auburn has 23,055; Lewiston, 36,592.
Lewiston has $160.5 million in outstanding debt, according to the 2012 city's annual report. Auburn has $61.2 million in outstanding debt, according to its 2012 annual report.
Lewiston's municipal government has 1,172 employees according to the annual report. That includes the 828 employed by the school department, 94 police department employees, 84 public works employees and 72 fire department employees.
Auburn has 821 total employees, including 585 employed by the school department. The city has 123 public safety employees — both police and fire departments, according to the annual report — and 55 public works employees.