LEWISTON — After a request for an additional public hearing was denied in Auburn, the Joint Charter Commission plans to stick with the original wording of the consolidation agreement to merge Lewiston and Auburn, which citizens will vote on Nov. 7.

The Charter Commission had planned to ask both cities to hold another public hearing to discuss proposed tweaks to the consolidation agreement, but following a vote by the Auburn City Council to deny the hearing, commission Chairman Gene Geiger said they will move forward with the original documents.

The consolidation agreement, which includes the proposed city charter, lays out details of the merger outlined by state statute. Some of the details included have been routinely criticized by the anti-merger campaign. 

Geiger said Wednesday that after the decision in Auburn he withdrew his requests in both cities for additonal hearings based on updated documents. He said Auburn’s decision put the Charter Commission “in a quandary” and that the Auburn council threw a “monkey wrench” into the process. 

However, he said, because of the decision in Auburn, the commission felt it better to leave the consolidation agreement as is in order to avoid confusion among voters. 

“We decided to stay with the documentation we have,” he said. “If Auburn is refusing to allow a second hearing, we don’t want to have Lewiston have a second reading on a different set of documents.”

One of the most talked-about concerns with the consolidation agreement has been the use of the word “residents” in Section G of the document, which describes who is responsible for paying off each city’s existing debt at the point a merger is confirmed. 

The passage reads, “After consolidation, taxes for the repayment of the bonded indebtedness of each of the now-existing cities on Jan. 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.”

During a recent debate in Auburn and again at Uplift LA’s merger forum held Tuesday, representatives from the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation questioned whether the word “residents” would cause the debt burden to fall solely on residents and not businesses as well. 

Matt Leonard, arguing against the merger at Tuesday’s forum, went so far as to calculate what the cost of paying off the debt would be for each resident, if businesses were not responsible for paying their portion. He repeated it a number of times throughout the forum.

However, Geiger said that the language is “a minor technicality” and that residents was used in the section to describe all taxpayers.

“Anyone who owns property pays taxes,” he said.

One of the amendments the Charter Commission would have made is changing “residents” to “taxpayers,” but Geiger said either way, the group’s attorney believes the language will hold up if approved. 

Asked Wednesday if there’s the potential for a lawsuit coming from COLAC if the merger is approved, based on the language, Jim Howaniec, the group’s chairman said, “Of course not, we are simply a very small group of Lewiston and Auburn residents who have carefully reviewed what appears to be a poorly drafted consultant report and pointed out its numerous flaws. The public can determine for itself the accuracy of this $140,000 report.” 

The Sun Journal also asked officials in both cities their opinion on the language. Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said that no matter the language, state law requiring all non-exempt properties to be taxed would prevail.

“I don’t think this would cause any confusion on how to proceed following the consolidation,” he said in an email. “I consider it a minor technical issue that is trumped by state law and the state constitution. There is simply no way we could legally shift the debt burden to only residents.” 

There was no response to an email request sent to Auburn officials.

Lewiston councilors voted Tuesday to hold a second hearing on Oct. 17, but that decision was based on the lack of quorum during its first hearing, not on amendments to the consolidation agreement. 

Geiger said that at the outset of the process, the consolidation agreement and related documents were labeled “draft” due to the notion that there would be additional public hearings to “finalize them based on what we heard.” 

The Auburn City Council voted 3-4 to deny a second public hearing, based on concerns that absentee voting had already begun. The issue was debated at length, but councilors argued that it was too close to the election to ensure the process was done correctly and not cause voter confusion. 

Councilor Andrew Titus said the proposed amendments were “not important enough” to warrant another hearing so close to the election. 

Councilor Andrew Pross said it would look bad for the city to vote against holding an additional hearing. 

The state statute on consolidations requires all hearings to conclude at least 10 days before the election. 

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