Lewiston-Auburn merger question debated

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Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation spokesman Bob Reed, left, and One LA spokesman Gene Geiger, second from left, listen to a question being posed by moderator Scott Knapp at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday night.

More coverage: Lewiston-Auburn merger debate: Surprises

LEWISTON — It’s a tale of two futures.

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In the version presented by One LA, the combined Lewiston-Auburn is a political powerhouse with lower taxes, improved schools and a kind of community vibrancy that other cities covet.

“We will see our population grow, our clout in this state will increase and we will become the economic powerhouse of Maine,” said Gene Geiger, representing One LA in a debate Thursday night.

“Our joining governments and schools will be a magnet for people and businesses wanting to be part of a city on the rise,” Geiger said. “Who wouldn’t be attracted to a place where people dared to change and rolled up their sleeves to do it?”

Then there’s the future envisioned by the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation: an economically grim scene where seniors and struggling young families have to fork over $5 million in transition costs even before they are hit with $2 million in new costs related to the merger.

“If you’re on a fixed income,” said Robert Reed, representing merger opponents in the debate, “your taxes are going to go up during the transition.”

For roughly an hour, Reed and Geiger argued their sides at the Lewiston Public Library, answering a series of questions about the pros and cons of consolidation.

The debate was attended by roughly 200 people, to the point where a few had to remain standing. At the front of the room, seated in hard plastic chairs, Reed and Geiger slugged it out.

“I believe we can be the place where it really is happening,” Geiger told the audience. “L-A will enjoy a renaissance — rising like our summer balloons — if we dare to look ahead, unite, pull in the same direction and adapt to a world that is changing with or without us.”

“Bigger is not always better,” advised Reed, Lewiston Finance Committee Chairman. “We are Lewiston and we are Auburn. Making a change for the sake of change is never a wise decision and can lead to unexpected consequences.”

Reed spent much of his allotted time taking on three main points embraced by people who support consolidation: that the merger would reduce taxes, that it would make the community more powerful in Augusta and that it would provide an economic revival.

“Maine as a whole suffers from higher minimum wages and higher electric rates compared to other areas that we often compete with for the same new employers and businesses,” Reed said.

“Nothing in a merger changes that fact, nor is there anything in a merger that suddenly improves wages or education levels — both of which many businesses look at when deciding where to build, expand or relocate,” he said. “There is nothing in a merger to address that that cannot be done in the current landscape without a merger.”

The debate, sponsored by the Sun Journal and the library, was moderated by Central Maine Community College President Scott Knapp.

It was an hour of dueling philosophies and competing numbers. Geiger maintained that studies have indicated the many benefits of consolidation.

“One car is cheaper than two,” he said. “One house is cheaper than two. One city government is cheaper than two. We know this is true. We have had experts — the people who do the work, as Mr. Reed calls them — go through city spending, department by department, line by line. We’ve detailed it. We’ve proved it.”

Reed has seen those studies, too, he said. The studies are flawed, he said, in part because they are based on erroneous property values.

Back and forth they went, arguing numbers and debating various nuances of consolidation. Added to the mix were questions from the public which were flung at both men.

How will a merger affect the public image of the community? What are the biggest misconceptions about a potential merger? What are the worst- and best-case scenarios?

The questions came fast and furious. For some in the audience, it was dizzying.

“I wish it was more clear,” said Joan Morin, who is from Auburn but who now lives in Lewiston. “I’m not ready yet. I need clearer information.”

For now, though, both Reed and Geiger acknowledge that nothing about the future is completely clear. There are too many variables and uncertainties to say anything for sure. It’s simply that one side believes that a merger improves the odds of future success while the other does not.

“Our community faces huge challenges going forward,” Geiger said. “It is not possible to grow economically with a population and workforce projected to decline and 70 percent of the kids who leave to go away to school never coming back. If you feel comfortable about the road ahead, stay the course. But I think clinging to our fond remembrances of what was and doing nothing is the formula for a gradual ebbing of strength — a slow, inevitable decline. It will be Groundhog Day again and again.”

As expected, Reed disagreed. He’s tired, he said, of One LA suggesting that Lewiston and Auburn are doomed unless they join forces.

“Our schools are bad because we’re not merged,” Reed said. “Our governments are bad because they’re not merged. And we’re not doing enough to attract business. Has anybody ever insulted our community more?”

In the end, the two men shook hands. Both agreed that it’s been a divisive year of debates and both expressed hope that when it’s over, those on both sides of the issue can be friends again.

But it’s a long way from over. Next week, there’s a public hearing, and another debate is planned for the week after. Sun Journal Executive Editor Judith Meyer told the audience that the newspaper plans an in-depth series exploring the merger debate.

For voters trying to make up their minds, it’s hard to say whether the Thursday night debate helped. Morin said she was still undecided, although there is something about the idea of a merger that appeals to her.

“We have to think of the next generation,” she said. “How can we get better if we don’t try something new?”

Her husband, Raymond, had no such inner turmoil. He was for the merger before the event Thursday night and he was for the merger after it.

“I think there are many more pluses than minuses,” he said. “I think that one day, we will be the city of Lewiston-Auburn.”

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

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