People marry all the time.

Cities don’t.

“Everybody agrees it ought to happen, and everybody agrees somebody else’s city ought to be merged,” said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. The typical reaction is something like: “Fantastic idea. You go first.”

Wisconsin even offered cities consolidation incentive payments; it didn’t budge many.

What Lewiston and Auburn are considering – adopting the same codes, joining departments, maybe even sharing one city manager – often hasn’t progressed beyond preliminary talks in other U.S. cities.

Call it cold feet. Discussions snag on things like whether there’ll be real savings, who’ll run the show, how to square different union contracts.

That could all be different here.

The Twin Cities have undertaken dozens of joint efforts through the years: railroads, sewer, an airport, ads for police and firemen. Since January they’ve shared a dog catcher.

L-A’s flirted with the idea of consolidating or merging for decades. Right now, yet another commission has been asked to make recommendations on the benefits of consolidating departments and leadership.

A complete merge – scrub both cities’ borders, adopt a new name – isn’t on the table. However, this could clearly be a run-up to that.

“They have really the perfect circumstances for it,” said Bill Fraser, city manager of Montpelier, Vt., and a Bath native.

“Who else is equally situated to pull it off like L-A? They’ve been connected since the beginning of time.”

City leaders – Lewiston Administrator Jim Bennett and departing Auburn Manager Pat Finnigan – seem to agree on how to manage those basic hurdles.

But they disagree on whether it’s time to have one city manager.

Finnigan says you’ve got to play the dating game, take it slow.

Bennett likes the idea, but is careful to say he doesn’t want the discussion to be about him; he wants it to be about the concept.

If he were out the door instead of Finnigan?

“I would tell them (the city council) to do everything they can to figure out how to make it work. Find all the reasons to say ‘yes’ and not the reasons to say ‘no.'”

Proposals await

The National League of Cities doesn’t keep track; neither does the Center for Government Research. There’s only anecdotal information about how often cities consolidate and some sense that city-county couplings happen more.

The Citizens Commission on Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation, born from a task force created by the former Guay mayors, is right now tallying the benefits of each city getting more cozy with the other.

“(We want to) be able to responsibly answer, when we go to the councils, what’s in this for the people?” commission Co-Chairman Peter Garcia said at an editorial board meeting with the Sun Journal.

“The answer needs to be: The services are going to be better or the costs are going to be lower, or both,” Garcia said.

He predicted both councils will receive “substantive proposals” by November.

Until then, only “what if’s” loom.

Bennett and Finnigan are both cautious to speculate over big savings. However, each said in separate interviews that consolidating could save time, it could make things easier (example: identical building codes would mean there wouldn’t be separate rules on each side of the river) and it could spur development.

“Businesses, when, if they look, see a stable, progressive government doing things, that will tip their hand in economic decisions,” Bennett said. Currently, some don’t give Lewiston a look because they’ve heard “the ham story” or the uproar over former Mayor Larry Raymond’s letter.

“They don’t look at it seriously, they don’t think of it seriously,” Bennett said.

Teaming with Auburn could change that.

Bennett and Finnigan dismissed the idea raised by several analysts that a crisis is needed for cities to get serious about merging or consolidation. Something big, ugly (think: officials caught embezzling) and motivational.

“When you’ve done everything and you’ve still got escalating cost and a burden on property taxes, (you look at the next steps),” Finnigan said. “On the other side, I think we’ve already had our crisis; I think the property tax burden in Maine is a crisis.”

All the best, from the cheese state

Finnigan said the decision to share a manager now is not a sign that consolidation will happen or not. City councilors in Auburn are weighing that issue. Her last day is June 1.

“The fact that you’ve got one manager (leaving) doesn’t mean you can fast track shared services if you haven’t done the work,” she said. “‘You can’t say, ‘You look pretty. I want to marry you’ – even though that’s done in some countries.”

When they’re ready, the cities ought to advertise for that joint position, Finnigan said.

From her description, it’ll take a lot of smaller steps to get there.

Even in hiring the joint animal control officer, she said the cities had to decide things like: Who does he report to? Who covers him on their insurance? If he’s sued, who backs him up?

It’ll be those sorts of issues on a broad scale.

Bennett’s take is that a merge at the top now would trigger other changes.

That split opinion on timing’s echoed by both city’s mayors.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert: “To me, (consolidation) comes so much quicker if you have one manager. If you have one manager, you answer to one head. He says, ‘Work this out’ and ‘This is what we’re going to do.'”

He said Auburn ought to at least give Bennett a trial run.

Auburn Mayor John Jenkins: “Why would (Bennett) want to take a job where the expectations are not clear? It’s like getting married to somebody you don’t know well. It’s a little late to ask questions after the vows.”

He said Auburn needs more time to think about what it needs. That said, he’s “all for the idea of collaboration and continuing to move forward.”

It’ll take time to see whether that happens, or how quickly – if at all – other city departments start to fold together.

“It’s not lost on me,” Bennett said, that three of the teams in the Lewiston Maineiacs’ Quebec Major Junior Hockey League play in merged cities. Quebec government has been aggressive about getting neighbors to partner for efficiency and cost-cutting benefits.

Does that make L-A’s union fate?

“Who knows?” Bennett said.

Given the long odds based on other cities’ experiences, divine intervention couldn’t hurt.

“God bless ’em and good luck,” said Thompson, over in Wisconsin.


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