One LA plans to make ‘overwhelming’ pro-merger case

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AUBURN — At a kickoff event Thursday for the pro-Lewiston-Auburn merger campaign One LA, Carl Sheline said the group will make an “overwhelming case for unification” of the Twin Cities.

His comments reflected those made by other supporters of merging the cities — a question that the campaign hopes will face voters in November.

Supporters believe a consolidated Lewiston-Auburn will save money while allowing the region to work together on a shared economic vision.

Sheline, a Lewiston business owner and co-manager of the One LA campaign, led a news conference Thursday morning at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn with Lewiston architect and fellow co-manager Gabrielle Russell. 

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Each speaker, including other business owners and supporters, reflected on growing up in the Twin Cities, and seeing the significant downward shift a few decades ago in the economic atmosphere and overall reputation of the communities. Most said they left the city for college or career opportunities, but came back to make positive changes in their home community. 

“I feel empowered and encouraged, because we have a chance right now,” Russell told the crowd. “It takes courage to take a risk and stand up for something new.” 

Russell is well-known for establishing Grow L+A, which led the effort to save the historic Bates Mill No. 5 from demolition. 

The Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission was formed in 2014 to draft a new charter for a proposed consolidated city. Since then, the commission has worked with consultant group CGR to study the benefits of a merger, the results of which were released in January. 

The event Thursday was designed as a campaign kickoff. Sheline and Russell said the “data presented is realistic,” referring to the study results that say the cities could save between $2.3 million and $4.2 million a year by merging. 

Opponents of the merger say they are skeptical of the financial savings presented so far, arguing that a required revaluation of the two cities would cost taxpayers more. An opposition group, the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, has been rolling out its own campaign over the past few months. 

Sheline said he’s confident the pro-merger campaign has broad support from people on both sides of the Androscoggin River. One LA has already named a volunteer coordinator and is seeking volunteers. 

“We don’t have our heads in the sand. We know it will take resources to convince the populous of the benefits of this,” he said. “But we’ve already had an outpouring of support.” 

He said he and Russell weren’t convinced by anyone else to run the campaign; rather, they feel strongly in favor and “raised our hands” to lead the effort. 

Most of the discussion Thursday focused on the idea that a merger would represent a positive progression, rather than the current state, which Sheline says is stagnant and too competitive. 

One LA supporter, Bruce Rioux, a businessman and former Auburn city councilor, said he has always looked at Lewiston-Auburn as one community. He said he wants to leave the community a better place.

“I find ourselves going backward,” he said, adding that state and federal governments are not supporting local communities like they once were. 

Donna Steckino, a supporter and former credit union CEO, said, “We need to move forward, and the only way we can do that is together.” 

Members of One LA and of the charter commission are hoping to place the merger question on both city ballots on Nov. 7.

Charter Commission Chairman Gene Geiger said Thursday that both cities will have to hold public hearings and approve the referendum language, likely this summer. 

Anton Lahnston, who served as chairman of the Princeton Consolidation and Shared Services Study in Princeton, New Jersey, attended the One LA event Thursday. He’s been in close contact with Geiger during the process, answering questions about the process used toward the merger there.

Lahnston said there are similarities and differences between the two campaigns. One, Geiger said, is that Lewiston-Auburn is bigger. A merger would create Maine’s second-largest city, at roughly 59,000, as well as the state’s largest school department. 

In studying the merger, the consulting firm facilitated work groups that looked closely at each department in the respective cities. The work groups came up with a range of savings based on which level of staffing was chosen.

For example, the recommendation from the charter commission would be to eliminate one city administrator and one assistant manager position in City Hall, reflecting more than $300,000 in annual savings. 

Russell said, “The independent consultants who have successfully advised other communities are on target” with the study results.

In order for the cities to merge, voters in both Lewiston and Auburn would have to vote in favor of it. If approved, a new city council would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, following a 26-month transition process. 

arice@sunjournal.com

Gabrielle Russell, Lewiston architect and co-manager of the One LA campaign, speaks in support of the proposed merger of Lewiston and Auburn on Thursday. 

Members of the One LA campaign hold a news conference at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn on Thursday. Members of One LA and of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission hope to place the Twin Cities merger question on both city ballots on Nov. 7.

Carl Sheline, co-manager of the One LA campaign in support of a Lewiston-Auburn merger, told an audience Thursday in Auburn that leading up to November, the campaign will make “an overwhelming case for unification.” 

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