AUBURN — Promising change to build a better city — including ending the turnpike toll north of Portland and building a new high school — Jonathan P. LaBonte was sworn in as mayor Wednesday night.
LaBonte pledged to work to make Auburn a city where businesses, families, college students and young entrepreneurs “will choose us,” he said in his inaugural speech.
LaBonte, 31, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, is believed to be the youngest mayor elected in Auburn. He ran for office unopposed.
Also sworn into office were seven city councilors and seven School Committee members.
LaBonte's inauguration was held at Walton Elementary School, which he attended in the neighborhood where he grew up.
The list of changes LaBonte seeks, as he outlined in his first speech, is long.
He pledged that the city will make a renewed commitment to civic engagement, from classrooms to Auburn Hall.
“This City Council is ready to step into their roles as policymakers, not individual city managers,” LaBonte said. Councilors and School Committee members will work together “at a level that has not been seen in recent memory.”
His top goal is “to make education Auburn's No. 1 priority,” LaBonte said. That drew applause from the audience. The City Council and School Committee will work together in a number of joint workshops, the first of which he'll call before the end of January.
Auburn faces challenges with an aging high school, he said. “Prior school committees and city councils neglected real capital improvement programs for decades,” LaBonte said. He'll push for a joint resolution laying out a solution for Auburn's aging school buildings, he said.
In other areas, LaBonte proposed changes to improve the area's transportation systems, saying L-A has suffered from “failed local advocacy,” he said. “Not any longer.”
Under his watch, the city will investigate creating a commuter bus service between downtown Portland and downtown L-A. He criticized a recent Maine Department of Transportation study that concluded federal money should go to a commuter service along the coast to Brunswick, where a free interstate already exists, as will a soon-to-be launched rail service.
“This is not acceptable,” LaBonte said.
Meanwhile, Lewiston-Auburn has to pay to use the turnpike. “These types of flaws in state and federal policy that put Lewiston-Auburn at a disadvantage must be addressed,” he said. That includes “either removing the toll north of Portland on the turnpike or finally placing a toll on I-295.”
That drew a second round of applause.
And after watching passenger rail advocates send the Downeaster up the coast, it's time to create passenger rail service from Portland to Auburn, Bethel and Montreal, he said. The city will play a key role in advocating that at the state and federal levels.
On housing, LaBonte said there is no citywide housing policy that attracts new investment, other than for low-income residents. Downtown Auburn needs options for young professionals, families and empty-nesters, he said. LaBonte said he's spoken with Lewiston Mayor-elect Bob Macdonald; the two will create a Joint Committee on Downtown Housing to identify opportunities.
When it comes to funding programs to encourage economic development, LaBonte hinted he might shake things up.
Saying the city's limited revenues must bring maximum benefits, he said funding versus results for the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce will be examined. Auburn must set a tone that entrepreneurs “will become our backbone and that Auburn is open for business,” he said.
While the changes are happening, “you can rest assured that all generations of Auburn residents will have a seat at the table, including the youth,” LaBonte said.
The era of low expectations will end, he said.
If Lewiston-Auburn is to become a place where businesses and families want to be, “we must believe we can be that community and, in fact, believe we already are.”