Lewiston-Auburn merger debate: Surprises

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LEWISTON — A few new pieces of information lobbed into the public eye during Thursday’s merger debate may have taken listeners by surprise. 

At the packed debate at the Lewiston Public Library, which was also live-streamed online, the two campaign spokesmen made some strong statements to bolster their arguments ahead of the historic merger decision facing voters in November. Here are just a few: 

Gov. Paul LePage 

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When Robert Reed made his closing remarks, he told the audience that his debate opponent, pro-merger leader Gene Geiger, has personally asked Gov. Paul LePage for $5 million to cover transition costs if the merger passes. 

Reed, a member of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, has repeatedly estimated that, should the merger be approved, the transition would cost about $5 million, a figure that Geiger and the One LA camp heavily dispute. 

Following the debate, Geiger said he had spoken with the governor about the funding, but he said there was never a specific dollar amount discussed.

LePage pledged funding toward the initial merger study last year and has been outspoken in favor of combining the cities. 

Geiger said the potential funding would come from a state government efficiency fund, but he has not asked for a specific amount and does not believe the transition costs will even come close to the figures presented by Reed. 

Reed, and merger opponent Bob Stone, said Thursday that LePage told the One LA group that the efficiency fund would provide about $3 million and that Geiger was told the effort could probably get more. 

Transition

When discussing a transition task force that would be charged with steering the consolidation in the three years between a vote and implementation, Reed said three of the task force’s 13 members would be members of the Joint Charter Commission. He argued that these three members would drive the effort and other members would take a “back seat.” 

“Three people could decide much of our future,” he said. 

The proposed charter for the combined city says the task force would include “three members of the public appointed by the Charter Commission, at least one of whom served on the Charter Commission (for continuity).”

During the debate, Reed also had some questions over how the consultant firm used by the Joint Charter Commission came to its final figures.

He said the property value figures used by the consultants were incorrect — and higher — than they actually are, which he said have skewed the entire report.

Geiger said the consultant, CGR, retrieved its information from city staff and officials. 

Edward Little

A few of the statements Thursday had to do with the new Edward Little High School, one of the few expensive projects in the pipeline that Reed said could affect the eventual merger costs. 

The state is paying for the school, but Reed said taxpayers in Auburn will pay about 10 percent of the school’s cost. He estimated the new high school to cost between $90-$100 million. 

The Sun Journal has previously reported that the State Board of Education will pay 100 percent of the costs of a new high school in Auburn, and that the estimated cost, in 2014, was $62 to $65 million. 

The majority of the argument for both campaigns so far has focused on the financial impacts of such a merger, but there is little precedent for municipal consolidations from which to draw. The only example in Maine was Dover-Foxcroft in 1922.

Here are a few other statements that stood out Thursday: 

  • Geiger told the audience that Reed was a proponent of a merger when it was discussed in 2008. Reed said he changed his mind after he took a deeper look at the proposed staff cuts and costs of consolidation. 
  • Asked what could be positive about the opposing campaign winning, Reed said, “We could save in taxes if we do it correctly, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.” 
  • Part of Reed’s $5 million calculation for transition costs is a $1 million revaluation of property in Lewiston. Geiger said it would be considerably less, if needed at all, and that Reed’s figure has increased twice.

A second debate is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 25, at the Auburn Public Library.

arice@sunjournal.com 

Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation spokesman Bob Reed, left, answers a question posed by his debate opponent, Gene Geiger, right, representing One LA during Thursday night’s debate at the Lewiston Public Library.

More coverage: Lewiston-Auburn merger question debated

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