The Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission has decided that it wants to move historic Lewiston City Hall to Auburn. It wants the citizens of Auburn to take on Lewiston’s “rain tax” and welfare costs. It wants the people of Lewiston to take on the dilemma of a crumbling Edward Little High School and the repair of all those hundreds of miles of roads out in rural Auburn. And soon, for the first time in two centuries, residents of both cities will be asked to call themselves by a different name.

It is the Commission’s claim of significant annual cost savings, however, that I find troubling most of all.

First of all, let’s be clear: What the Commission is proposing is extremely rare. In the past 30 years, only some 10 communities out of nearly 90,000 local governments — most with populations of less than 3,000 people — have decided to merge together. Some towns, including several in Quebec Province, are de-merging. There is a reason for this: Municipal mergers do not work.

There has simply been no grassroots interest in merging during the two centuries that the two cities have existed. This proposal is the brainchild of a small group from the local Chamber of Commerce that has been imposing its obsession on the good people of Lewiston and Auburn for nearly three years now. It is time to bring this crazy idea to an end. Let’s vote it down in November, once and for all.

I am part of a group of former and current local elected officials and concerned citizens who are opposed to the proposed merger. We have examined the Commission’s proposals. We simply do not believe that the “possible” savings that “may” occur are, in any way, based on reality.

Municipal budgets are, by nature, labor intensive. Labor-related costs — salaries, health insurance, retirement benefits, workers compensation, etc. — make up some 80 percent of a city’s budget. These costs are bargained for collectively by city employee unions, and are generally “fixed” from year to year — unless, of course, services are cut. If the cities were merged, we believe that there would be no appreciable reductions in labor costs. The new city would have essentially the same number of police officers, public works employees, teachers, and firefighters, serving the same number of schools, streets and neighborhoods as before.

Lewiston has laid off some 36 employees in the past several years. Auburn’s budget is so tight that the city had to lay off its fire chief this past year. There are simply no measurable cost savings to be found, merger or no merger. These budgets have already been slashed deep into the bone. The Commission’s report, released recently by its New York based consultant, shows absolutely no comprehension of the tireless, line-by-line savagery performed by the Lewiston and Auburn city councils in recent budget cycles.

Municipal labor costs under a merger would actually increase significantly. City unions would negotiate up to the higher level being paid by whichever of the two cities is paying more. If the average teacher earns $45,000 in Lewiston, for example, and the average teacher earns $40,000 in Auburn, then the unions are obviously going to negotiate to the higher $45,000 level — at an enormous cost to the taxpayers of both cities. The Commission itself estimates (conservatively) that the increase in labor costs by this “leveling up” will be $1.1 to $1.6 million — annually. We believe the figure will be much higher, probably in excess of $2 million per year

The Joint Charter Commission has not come up with a plan. It has come up with a few ideas that it believes some unknown future elected officials should adopt, three or four years into the future, that “may” result in savings. Unless the new city engages in drastic municipal employee layoffs and cuts in services, there are simply not enough line items left in our city budgets to achieve the unrealistic savings proposed by the Commission.

James Howaniec is a lifelong resident of Lewiston. He served as the city’s mayor from 1990-1994. He is a former Maine Assistant Attorney General and has practiced law on Lisbon Street since 1990. He is currently chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation.

James Howaniec

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