LEWISTON — If voters in Lewiston and Auburn agree to consolidate the two cities next month, it would initiate a two-year transition process and lead to a new, merged city beginning Jan. 2, 2020.

However, the two competing merger campaigns have very different views on what that transition would look like, and how much it could cost. 

It’s been one of the most heated arguments between the warring campaigns, causing an endless back and forth during recent public debates that has spilled over onto social media. 

The Sun Journal breaks down how the two sides view that two-year transition window. 

Task force

If a merger is approved, the 26-month process will be driven by a transition task force, which is outlined in the proposed City Charter of the consolidated city.

According to Joint Charter Commission Chairman Gene Geiger, the purpose of the group — and its lengthy timeline — is to allow city officials to take an in-depth look at each new consolidated department and how it would operate. 

He said the task force would likely establish smaller subcommittees to look at city operations, public safety, public works and education. The groups would work toward final recommendations that would be presented to the new, 10-member City Council in 2020. 

“The City Council will accept part or all of what’s recommended, but they’ve got to have in front of them the specifics of how every department would be organized,” Geiger said. 

The task force would also have the power to engage city administration and staff to begin crafting a joint budget, and call on both city councils to hold joint workshops during the transition period.

According to the proposed city charter, “Elected officials will regularly review the transition work being done, resolve impediments, and plan for day one when the new government is seated.” 

The task force would feature 13 members, including the city administrator in Lewiston and city manager in Auburn, as well as both school superintendents, mayors, two city councilors, two members of the school committees, and three members of the public.

At least one of those residents will be a member of the Joint Charter Commission, a point that Robert Reed, member of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, argued would allow Charter Commission members to remain in control of the process.

“Three people could decide much of our future,” Reed claimed during a debate last month. 

However, Geiger said this week he’d be “totally shocked” if more than a single Charter Commission member ended up on the task force.

Reed and merger opponents have also argued that nothing the task force does or recommends during the two years will mean anything until it’s approved by the new City Council in 2020. There are no guarantees, Reed has said. 

Geiger says it will ultimately be up to the new council, but he’s optimistic that the transition process, with so many city officials involved, will find the best path for a merged Lewiston-Auburn. 

“One of the reasons for the two-year process was to give a lot of time to make this thing work well,” he said. 

Asked if he believes the transition task force could be successful in shaping the consolidation, Reed said, “(That’s) impossible to answer until we see who runs for office and is elected, but the first election for the new entity would be interesting.” 

Transition costs

While both sides have posed very different financial pictures of the transition, no one can say with certainty what the final dollar amounts will be. There are only educated guesses, including those made in the Charter Commission’s study done by municipal consultant CGR.  

The study lays out — and ranks — the most significant transition costs, including severance payments for employees, as well as moving costs and IT services for the shuffling of departments. 

Also discussed by both campaigns have been the cost of “leveling up” union contracts, which the report itself estimates to cost between $1 and $1.6 million. But it seems to be one of the only items the two sides agree on. 

As the campaigns have rolled on, merger opponents and the pro-merger campaign One LA have consistently disputed each other’s numbers. Reed has repeated his claim first made at Lewiston’s debate last month that the transition will cost upwards of $5 million. 

Geiger calls that number “outrageous” and said this week that “there’s no way” the transition costs will even reach $3 million. 

Even if they did, he said, “it would still be worthwhile” based on the projected merger savings of between $2.3 and $4.2 million each year going forward. 

The Coalition Opposing Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, however, believes things such as attorney and consultant fees, reviewing ordinances, and creating a single master plan are being overlooked. 

“There is little doubt that this grouping could cost more than $1 million given what they spent just to create the report,” Reed said, referring to the CGR report. 

He also believes a property revaluation, employee severance and transitioning IT services will add up to enormous costs. An entire list of Reed’s analysis can be found on the COLAC website.

Geiger and One LA have released a direct response to the coalition’s findings. 

Reed believes that on top of the “leveling up,” the merger will also create higher wages for nonunion employees such as city administration. He also said that while the transition costs are adding up during the transition period, taxpayers will see none of the merger savings during those years, leading to tax increases.  

Geiger said union contracts will continue to be negotiated as they’ve always been, and that a new City Council will only agree to what they believe the new city can afford. 

“Those things are very hard to estimate,” Geiger said, referring to the overall transition costs. “Obviously, Bob Reed goes on the high side, and we’re going on the lower side.” 

Gov. LePage

As the coalition countered One LA and the Charter Commission with its own set of transition costs, the coalition members have also pointed to merger discussions with Gov. Paul LePage, who has supported the initiative. 

In a recent meeting in Lewiston, LePage told Geiger and other guests that a state government efficiency fund could offset some of the transition costs. Reed told a recent debate audience that the conversation amounted to Geiger admitting the costs would be much higher than he’s letting on.

“My conclusions are affirmed by the fact that Mr. Geiger and others specifically asked the Governor to pay some of this in the amount of $5 million, and his reply was his (efficiency fund) could provide up to $3 million, and he’d need to get the Legislature to kick in another $2 million,” Reed said in an email this week. 

However, Geiger said, acquiring any of the $3 million is a competitive process, and he doubts the L-A merger, or any other applicant, would be selected to receive it all. 

Geiger said he never asked for the entire $3 million, or anything on top of that. 

“The governor didn’t commit anything,” Geiger said. “All I know is that he says this will be great for this entire state. There’s got to be some ability to secure some funds.” 

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A closer look:

Read the merger opponent coalition’s transition cost analysis here.

Read One LA’s fact-check response, including its own analysis of the costs here.

Read the proposed City Charter of a consolidated Lewiston-Auburn here

Gene Geiger, representing One LA, right, debates Robert Reed of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation in Lewiston last month. During the campaign, the pair has been the most outspoken when it comes to the potential transition costs should voters approve a Lewiston-Auburn merger. 

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