Transition, leadership among sticking points in merger debate

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AUBURN — Several times during Monday’s debate on whether to merge the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, anti-merger spokesman Bob Stone told the audience that there were no guarantees. 

In fact, he said, if a merger is approved by voters this November, the fate of both cities would entirely rest in the hands of the newly elected city officials in 2020. It was a point he kept coming back to.

At the second debate between One LA and the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, Stone and his pro-merger opponent Chip Morrison agreed on this point, but their tone differed on how a two-year transition would affect the new city of about 60,000.

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The theme was a questionable transition versus optimism in future elected officials. 

The pair traded arguments over mostly familiar talking points for more than an hour, but a few new pieces of information for those who have been following the campaigns also emerged.  

Transition

“What I’m concerned about is what happens between this year and 2020,” Stone said. 

He and COLAC argue that both cities will most likely incur new debt during those years, or negotiate new contracts. Even if the merger is approved, the ultimate power and final say will lie with the new 10-member Lewiston-Auburn City Council and mayor in 2020. They will set the budget, Stone said. 

Lewiston will need a property revaluation. 

While Stone, like COLAC debater Robert Reed before him, said he believes there will be savings in a merger, he also believes they will not ultimately be realized by a future city government, and that they’ll be overshadowed by transition costs. 

Morrison, who spent the past three years on the Joint Charter Commission crafting the merger proposal, said future officials “will work to make the merger work.” 

In response to a question about what would happen if the transition were to take longer than anticipated, Morrison remained optimistic. 

“It will get done. I have confidence in that,” he said. 

The Charter Commission has lain out plans for a transition task force that will work during the two years in between, but Stone said they will have no final say.

Gov. LePage 

Another conversation that stemmed from the previous debate was talk of Gov. Paul LePage’s support of the merger effort.

There has been a back-and-forth between the campaigns over funding for the merger should it pass. Asked Monday was whether LePage offered to pay for the transition costs.

Stone said that during a recent lunch at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston with members of both campaigns, there was “vigorous debate” among them and LePage. (Stone also said LePage “talked about 90 percent of the time.”) 

But, Stone said of LePage, “he never agreed to anything.”

Stone said that LePage asked his assistant about potential funding for transition costs, and that a figure of $3 million was mentioned, with the possibility mentioned of $2 million more, which COLAC members say equals their assertion that there will be $5 million in transition costs. 

The pro-merger campaign has repeatedly taken issue with those figures. 

Morrison said he wasn’t at the meeting with LePage.

“But I do know that the governor is fully supportive (of the merger), and believes we’d be a powerhouse in New England.” 

Consolidation agreement

Stone also threw in a last-minute curve ball relating to the language in the consolidation agreement, a document including the new city charter that voters will decide on in November. 

He said the language that describes who will pay for the remaining bonded debt of both cities could be misinterpreted and would fall solely on residents. 

The section he quoted reads, “After consolidation, taxes for the repayment of the bonded indebtedness of each of the now-existing Cities on January 1, 2020 shall be assessed solely against the residents of within the limits of each of the previously existing Cities, such assessment to be in addition to all other real and personal property taxes.”

Stone questioned whether the specific mention of “residents” would exclude businesses from the taxes. 

“Clearly that’s a technicality,” Morrison responded, arguing that “residents” is a euphemism for taxpayers. He also said he’d take the issue to the Charter Commission to discuss and amend if needed. 

Power 

There was also a back-and-forth over how a merger would affect the amount of power and voice with which the communities would be left. 

Morrison said more than once that the merger would give Lewiston-Auburn more power and more influence in the state, but both said the number of elected representatives in Augusta would stay the same. 

“We will have the same amount of people, but we’ll have more power,” Morrison said. “We’ll have done something other communities haven’t done.” 

Stone, an Auburn city councilor, went a step further and said residents on the Auburn side of the river would lose representation in a merger. There would be five wards, one in Auburn, two in Lewiston and two straddling each side of the Androscoggin. 

“How can Auburn be fairly represented?” he said, adding that the people elected to lead a consolidated city may not even live in Lewiston or Auburn now.

“Everybody has one vote,” Morrison, also an Auburn resident, responded.

He argued that the way the wards are drafted, it’s entirely possible for the Auburn side to have a majority in a new council.

Here are a few other statements that stood out Monday:

  • In response to Morrison saying that the merger could eliminate competition between the cities, Stone said the cities already collaborate in more than 100 ways. 
  • Stone said COLAC is upset about the name-calling against their campaign base. They are often called “groundhogs,” which he said means “we’re a bunch of do-nothings.” He said Auburn is “not sitting still,” and Auburn building permits are “out of sight.” He added, “I think we’re owed an apology.”
  • Morrison said the biggest misconception he hears is that Charter Commission members are “in it for something.” He told the audience that the elected commission has been working as volunteers for more than three years.
  • Stone told the audience that Lewiston and Auburn currently have more elected representation in leadership roles in Augusta than Portland, which is true. Garrett Mason is the Senate majority leader, Nate Libby is the assistant Senate Democratic leader and Jared Golden is the assistant majority floor leader in the House. 

arice@sunjournal.com 

Robert Stone of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation presents arguments against the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger at a debate held in the Auburn Public Library on Monday night.

Chip Morrison, representing One LA, presents arguments in favor of the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger at a debate held in the Auburn Public Library on Monday night.

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