Lewiston-Auburn merger: What will you vote on?

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Do you, the citizens of Lewiston and Auburn, feel equipped to vote on the upcoming merger referendum? 

Do you really know what it will mean for you as a taxpayer, business owner or public employee? Does anyone know with certainty? 

To some, the merger may seem an ambitious and forward-thinking initiative that could spark new business investments, create better schools and attract young professionals, but to others it could present a reality that’s tough to comprehend and full of downsides. 

The proposed name of Lewiston-Auburn is recognizable, and it is how many Mainers identify the region. But, how do you feel when you picture one combined city hall at Auburn Hall, or one centralized fire department in Lewiston? What about a school system that would be the largest in the state? 

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Change – with no guaranteed positive results – is cause for skepticism among some. Many on the opposing side of the merger have said bigger isn’t always better and that individual identity will be erased.

Leading up to the election, the Sun Journal will run a series of articles taking a look at the biggest talking points and arguments both for and against the merger.

But first things first: What will you be voting on?

The question that will face voters in both cities on Tuesday, Nov. 7, will read, “Do you approve the charter and consolidation agreement as recommended by the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission?”

Without more information, the question could leave citizens not familiar with the campaigns confused at the polls. Here are the basics. 

The consolidation agreement, which includes the proposed charter, is a list of information stipulated by state law. It includes the proposed name for the consolidated city as well as complicated financial information, such as each city’s assessed property value, debt and terms for apportioning tax rates to pay off the remaining bonded debt in each city.

While Lewiston has greater assessed value, and about twice the real and personal property value than Auburn, it also has more than double that of Auburn in total bonded and other debt.  

The consolidation agreement states that after a merger, taxes for the repayment of existing bonded debt in both cities would be “assessed solely against the residents of within the limits of each of the previously existing cities … in addition to all other real and personal property taxes.” 

According to the commission, those annual figures for paying off the existing debt would equal about $6 per $1,000 of valuation in Lewiston and $4.68 in Auburn. It’s debt that residents would have paid off regardless of the merger.

If approved by voters on both sides of the Androscoggin River, the new charter would become effective on Jan. 1, 2020. The charter establishes a council-manager form of government, with an 11-member city council that includes a mayor elected at large and 10 city councilors, two from each of five wards elected in staggered terms.

The latest effort to merge, initiated by the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission, began in 2014 and is the fourth such attempt at merging the cities. But the Charter Commission’s work has been the most formal attempt, and none of the prior efforts have reached the point of an approved ballot question appearing before voters in both cities.

The merger concept has also never reached this level of debate or active campaigning, with “No Merger” and “OneLA” signs popping up on lawns and storefronts. The conversation has ranged from civil debate to heated exchanges over social media, including the threat of boycotting businesses that support merging

Some say the debate is dividing the communities rather than uniting them. 

There has also been a range of emotions shown by residents during an earlier merger forum hosted by the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and during the Auburn City Council’s public hearing on the consolidation agreement.

The commission, with elected members, has spent nearly three years of bi-monthly meetings drafting the charter and other documents. 

The state law on joint charter commissions was put in place in 1987 and has never been used, which opponents point to as proof that mergers don’t work. But, supporters say Lewiston and Auburn could make history and be a success story for other cities to follow.

“What are we waiting for? Other cities are watching to see what we’ll do. Leading is hard; complaining is easy,” said resident Kristy Phinney during the recent hearing.

Many, even those opposed to a merger, have said a referendum will finally put the question to rest. 

Since this past spring, the two competing campaigns gathered steam after the Joint Charter Commission presented a consultant study that said a merger could save between $2.3 million and $4.2 million annually by eliminating duplicate city positions, among other savings. Outside consultant studies performed for the other merger efforts showed somewhat similar savings. 

However, the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, the campaign against the merger, has argued that costs will outweigh any efficiencies. Proponents say possible property revaluations and renegotiated union contracts will hit taxpayers’ wallets and that the savings predicted won’t materialize.   

“Many of us think that Lewiston and Auburn already are great,” said Jim Howaniec, chairman of the opposition campaign during the June forum. “We don’t think they need to merge to become something greater.” 

Is a merger a big and bold vision that will unite the interests of the Twin Cities to create something greater, or a series of “rosy promises” luring voters into a costly and unnecessary mistake?

Voters have about two months to decide what direction they want to take. 

arice@sunjournal.com 

Merger: FMI

• The Nov. 7 ballot in both cities will read: “Do you approve the charter and consolidation agreement as recommended by the Lewiston Auburn Joint Charter Commission?”

• The consolidation agreement details, which include the proposed charter, can be viewed here

• Lewiston is hosting its public hearing on the consolidation agreement on Thursday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m. in the Lewiston Middle School auditorium, 75 Central Ave., Lewiston.

• A second debate on the merger, hosted by the Sun Journal, will take place at the Auburn Public Library on Monday, Sept. 25, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. 

• Another informational forum on the merger will be hosted by Uplift LA on Tuesday, Oct. 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Gendron Franco Center’s Performance Hall, 46 Cedar St., Lewiston.

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