AUBURN — A consultant hired to gather information on the Twin Cities ahead of creating a charter for combining Lewiston and Auburn told residents Wednesday night that he wasn’t there to convince them it was a good idea.

The meeting was meant to get public comment and opinions about merging the cities, but it became about soothing residents’ worries about the commission and the consulting group’s motives.

“This is about us informing your decision,” consultant Joe Stefko said at the meeting in Auburn Hall sponsored by the Lewiston-Auburn Charter Commission.

“There are a lot of trade-offs and things that many communities see as good or great,” Stefko said. “Those things are in the eye of the beholder in many communities, maybe between Auburn and Lewiston. The emotional elements of the decision are going to be there when it goes to referendum. Ours is to make sure that when you decide yes or no, that decision is as informed as it can be, with objective data and facts.”

Stefko and two other consultants from the Rochester, N.Y.-based government efficiency consultants CGR arrived in Maine on Monday night for a week of meetings with the commission, staff and officials from both cities and with the public. With a first draft of the charter available for download via the commission’s website, work now turns to how combining the Twin Cities would affect Lewiston and Auburn.

“We did a bit of work before we got here, but we started in earnest today,” consultant Paul Bishop said. “This is what we call a baseline review, where we are trying to get a handle on what is happening in your community. We are trying to get objective information. We are gathering budgets, we are talking to people about debt schedules, we are looking at audited financial statements and your plans.”

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So far, the consultants’ work has included two public meetings, an informal session Tuesday night at the Lewiston Public Library and Wednesday’s meeting. Stefko said he imagines the group will have at least 37 meetings with department heads, managers and city officials from both sides of the river by the end of the day Thursday.

The Sun Journal is hosting a live blog at noon Monday, Feb. 8, with Stefko and members of the commission to talk about what they learned while in town.

Voters will decide at some point whether they want to merge Lewiston and Auburn, Stefko said. His job is to make sure they make an informed decision.

“It’s critically important that as we go through this process it be done right, and it not be rushed,” he said. “This is an important community conversation. We want to make sure that the information is conveyed to the commission and to the community in a way that is understandable and with sufficient time for dialogue about what might make sense.”

Stefko said his team will take the information they learn this week and draft a report on the current conditions of the Twin Cities: how many employees each city has in various functions, what union contracts look like and how property tax valuations stack up. That process should take about 90 days.

Next, the group will begin outlining options for combining the various departments. Stefko said his group won’t give the cities only one option.

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“Rather, what we’ll do is say that you have a range of alternatives,” he said. “One project we did a few years ago, we actually put seven or eight options for police services on the table. It ranged from ‘This would save you the most money but could compromise the levels of service,’ to ‘This option may cost more but builds in some enhanced services.’ And between those extremes, there are options and trade-offs. It is your job to decide which trade-off this community should be willing to accept.”

Voters are tentatively set to vote on the charter in November. If voters of both cities decide to merge, it would take at least a year to get the preliminary details worked out and years for the consolidation to be complete.

“I’ve seen it happen a couple of different ways,” Stefko said. “Some smaller communities have said the complexity of blending functions is not that high, so as soon as the new government is seated, we can just do that. The other approach is where there is more complexity or other mitigating factors. They say, ‘The City Clerk’s office may be consolidated in 13 months. And the tax assessor and finance, those are ready.’ But police, we recommend a three-year phase in.”

Lewiston and Auburn voters elected six commissioners — three from each city — in June 2014 to study and draft a new charter combining the two cities. The group has met twice each month discussing government options, meeting with local government representatives and writing a draft charter combining language from the Lewiston and Auburn charters and a national model charter.

The commission last month released the draft of the charter as well as a document comparing it with the current Lewiston and Auburn charters.

CGR has written reports for as many as 30 communities in New York state and the rest of the Northeast. The work consists of a baseline review of both governments today: the number of employees, assets, taxes and other data. Next, they develop scenarios that combine operations, outlining benefits and drawbacks for each.

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The first draft of the Lewiston-Auburn Charter is finished and now it’s time to get down to dollars and cents.

How would a new city operate? How many employees would it need? What kind of financial impact would a combined Lewiston-Auburn have on government functions and especially on property taxes?

Join the Sun Journal at noon Monday at www.sunjournal.com for a live blog discussion with government efficiency consultant Joe Stefko and members of the Charter Commission. Stefko and his group CGR Consulting will be writing a report over the several months that should answer some of those questions.

Log on, ask questions and help the Twin Cities decide whether consolidation is in our future.


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