LEWISTON — At the most recent forum on the proposed consolidation, anti-merger spokesman Matt Leonard, an Auburn resident, told the audience that Lewiston and Auburn are distinctly different cities.

He argued that Auburn is much more rural and has more in common with neighboring Poland than it does with Lewiston. 

While many people — merger advocates included — would disagree, Leonard’s statement represents a common thread within the merger discussion: Auburn residents are wary of being “taken over” by the larger, more urban Lewiston.

People in both cities, falling on both sides of the issue, have been pointing out the flaws of their neighbor city as reasons to remain separate. One in particular has been restated in letters and on social media. 

A recent comment on the Sun Journal website said a merger would cause Auburn to “inherit” Lewiston’s “welfare burden.” 

In a letter to the Sun Journal earlier this year, Auburn City Councilor Leroy Walker repeated the recurring worry for people in that city.

“Merging the cities of Auburn and Lewiston will not save anyone on taxes,” he said. “Just look at the cost of the welfare program in Lewiston. Citizens of Auburn are not ready to be taken over by the city of Lewiston.” 

But should social service budgets be a factor in considering the proposed merger? 

Social services

No one can say with any real certainty what a new, combined social services department would look like in a consolidated city. The same can be said for all other combined city departments.

In the charter commission’s “options and impacts” study, which was done by municipal consulting firm CGR, recommendations are made for the potential savings of a consolidated department.  

Listed under social services and General Assistance, the recommendation made is to “Retain one (social services) director and eliminate the second director, thereby reducing the staff complement by one full-time equivalent position.”

According to the report, that would result in a savings of $78,000.

However, it would be up to the newly elected City Council in 2020 to make the decisions on each department’s funding. 

Last year, Auburn spent $177,522 on General Assistance, a program that provides residents with assistance, in voucher form, for basic needs such as rent, food, medication and utilities. The city had originally budgeted $97,778 for the program last year.

While the need in Auburn appears to be growing, it still represents less than 1 percent of the entire city budget. 

In Lewiston, the program is larger. In fiscal 2016-17, the GA budget was $872,275, which is roughly 7.5 percent of the city’s budget.

About 65 percent of the people assisted in Lewiston were immigrants. Auburn saw a similar 61 percent. 

Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, said the discussion over welfare in the two cities is an example of the negativity that has been caused by the merger initiative. 

But Howaniec believes a merger would have a greater negative impact on Lewiston than it would on Auburn, because of things like a property revaluation. He said Lewiston is “the most misunderstood city in the state.” 

“It gets defined by a small radius of blight in the inner city,” he said. “Lewiston is an otherwise clean, safe, well-managed city with nice neighborhoods.”

He said the merger initiative — and the resulting criticisms — has “brought out the worst in the two cities.” 

‘Takeover’ 

Carl Sheline, co-chairman of pro-merger campaign One LA, said some local politicians who oppose the merger are doing so because they are “more interested in keeping their jobs than they are in doing their jobs.”

“They will say just about anything to prevent this merger, which we know will make Lewiston-Auburn an economic engine, freeing taxpayer dollars to improve education and unifying economic development strategies to create good jobs, so we can help move people from welfare to work,” he said. 

Also routinely cited by Auburn residents is the proposed layout of a consolidated city government, which would feature a 10-member City Council, with two councilors from each of five wards. 

In the proposed geographic makeup of the wards, one would be entirely in Auburn, two would be entirely in Lewiston, and two would straddle both sides of the Androscoggin River. 

Merger opponents have argued that the makeup would cause less representation for Auburn residents, an assertion disputed by the Joint Charter Commission, which designed the layout. 

One LA recently released a list of responses to what they say are questionable facts that were provided by Leonard during the recent forum.

In response to Leonard’s take that Lewiston and Auburn are entirely different, the response said, “Hogwash. We are known as and are seen by others as Lewiston-Auburn. Visitors from away generally cannot tell which city they are in.”

One recent author of a letter to the Sun Journal in support of the merger admitted the differences between the cities, including welfare, could be difficult to streamline. But he remained optimistic.

“It won’t be easy to bring together the different tax rates, computer systems, welfare loads, unionized sectors, etc., but it can be done if there are good-faith deliberations and planning,” he said. 

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Lewiston and Auburn welfare 

* Lewiston’s General Assistance spending, at $872,275 in fiscal 2016-17, represented 7.5 percent of the overall city budget.

* Auburn’s General Assistance spending, at $177,522 in fiscal 2016-17, represented less than 1 percent of the overall city budget. 

* GA spending in Auburn is growing: Last year, $97,778 was budgeted; $177,522 was spent. 

Matt Leonard, representing the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, speaks during last week’s final merger forum in Lewiston, with moderator Matt Shaw and pro-merger spokeswoman Kristy Phinney, background. 

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