AUBURN — The campaign against the proposed merger of the Twin Cities added new voices Wednesday, hoping to bolster its argument that a consolidation would ultimately cost taxpayers.
Officially joining the anti-merger side and questioning the financial benefit of the move were Matt Leonard and Robert Reed, who spoke to a small group gathered at the Sixth Street Congregational Church in Auburn.
Leonard, a business owner and former president of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, called the savings recently presented by the Joint Charter Commission “funny math.”
The elected charter commission revealed its report on the potential savings of a merger in January, saying the cities could save between $2.3 and $4.2 million annually through consolidation.
“It’s just rearranging the furniture,” Leonard said, referring to consolidating two large cities and restructuring staff.
Leonard said he initially thought the merger may be a good idea — until he took a closer look. He said in Princeton, New Jersey, where a merger has served as an example to the Joint Charter Commission, savings have been overstated.
The charter commission’s report was conducted by the same consulting firm, CGR, that conducted the Princeton merger. Leonard said the report had a “predetermined outcome” to argue in favor of a merger.
Instead of a merger, Leonard said, the two cities should look at creating a consolidated strategic plan. He agrees with the Charter Commission on the demographic issues facing the region, with a declining workforce and aging population. But he said there are other avenues to pursue.
“There are other solutions out there to address our economic concerns,” he said, adding, the cities should “stop wasting our time with the notion that if we combine the cities, suddenly things change overnight.”
Reed, the Lewiston Finance Committee chairman and former city councilor, said the charter commission is overestimating the amount of savings from a merger. He said when he was a councilor almost 10 years ago, he was asked to look at a potential consolidation, and thought savings were overestimated then, too.
“I thought it was a bad deal, and I thought we put it to bed,” he said about previous efforts to merge. “I’m more opposed now than I was then.”
Reed went through a specific list of items he disagrees with, countering points made in the Charter Commission’s report.
He said savings from cutting city administration and other positions won’t be realized. Combining into a larger city will result in renegotiated union contracts, and wage-matching leading to higher costs.
“If we’re now the size of Portland, we’ll want to be paid like Portland,” he said.
He also listed other unintended costs such as a revaluation of both communities and new bonds for infrastructure projects.
Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, said he believes an organized opposition to the merger is necessary to avoid a straight shot to victory for those in favor of the merger.
“If there wasn’t an opposition, we could conceivably see this pass,” he said.
Campaign signs saying “Let’s stay Lewiston and Auburn — Vote NO on the merger” littered the church function room Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the pro-merger group OneLA announced its campaign, arguing that the merger will save money while allowing the region to work together on a shared economic vision.
Questions from the audience Wednesday centered on the process going forward. The Charter Commission is working toward a referendum in November, and plans to reveal the proposed name in June. (See related story.)
One resident said he’s surprised that knowledgeable business leaders such as Leonard and Charter Commission member Chip Morrison could be on opposite sides of the argument.
“We have a great deal of respect for the other side,” Howaniec said. “They love their cities as much as we love our two communities, we just have two very different perspectives on this particular issue.”
Matt Leonard, former president of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, speaks to a small crowd of people Wednesday about the proposed merger of Lewiston and Auburn. Also picured, from left, is Lewiston Finance Committee Chairman Robert Reed, coalition chairman Jim Howaniec and Auburn City Councilor Robert Stone.