This fall, voters are being asked to cast their vote on the proposed charter and consolidation agreement as recommended by the Joint Charter Commission. To date, most coverage has been emotional talking points in support of a “yes” vote and lacking severely in substantive debate. For those who want emotional reasons to vote “no,” I can offer them; but for those who need a solid policy basis to vote “no,” read on.

Lewiston, which has hardworking and competent teachers, has chosen to embark on an educational approach of building elementary schools to house more than 900 students. In Auburn, you could fit East Auburn, Sherwood Heights and Walton enrollments into the new Connors Elementary School at the high school campus. Those people who don’t want to close Auburn’s neighborhood schools, vote “no” on the consolidation proposal.

Ever heard the expression “if it moves, tax it?” In Lewiston, if it falls, they tax it. While Auburn City Councils have focused on budgeting for storm water system improvements to protect the Androscoggin River and its tributaries, Lewiston chose to tax households and businesses on rain to pay for it. Per the recommendations of the Charter Commission, the rain tax could come to Auburn. Those people who don’t want to pay a rain tax should vote “no” on the consolidation proposal.

Behind the emotional arguments and slick marketing materials of proponents, the actual vote is on the proposed language in the charter and consolidation agreement. In black and white, what the Joint Charter Commission has put on paper will drive up taxes, greatly restrict citizen influence, and place power in Lewiston-Auburn in the hands of a select few.

The existing Auburn charter offers a protection to taxpayers with respect to city debt. The City Council is prohibited, by charter, from approving any single project that costs more than 9 percent of total city spending for that year without seeking voter approval. For the current fiscal year, that caps any single project at $7.5 million.

The proposed charter for a merged Lewiston-Auburn boosts that percentage to 15 percent and shifts the basis to the total property tax levy. For the average voter, you might not catch that change, and there’s been no discussion on this. But the merged city council would be authorized to borrow nearly $15 million before asking for taxpayers’ permission.

Want a probable example? The next major parking garage required by mill development contracts in Lewiston would not require voter approval in the merged Lewiston-Auburn. Under current rules in Auburn, residents would get a say in it.

With respect to citizen influence on City Hall, both Auburn’s current charter and the proposed merger charter include provisions to petition on ordinances and force a popular vote in support or opposition to them.

Under Auburn’s current rules, a petition requires gathering a little more than 1,500 signatures in 90 days. However, the merged Lewiston-Auburn would require citizens to obtain nearly 4,000 signatures in those same 90 days.

This provision puts an immense burden on citizens to petition their local government on an issue. What is even more concerning, is that the effort to force the creation of the Joint Charter Commission, which was lauded by cheerleaders as having tremendous support, took four times longer to collect only 1,000 signatures.

The issue with the numbers being turned against citizens in this proposal extends straight into the proposed city council chambers. The most significant flaw in the proposal is that the proposed merger charter sets up a 10-member city council, serving two-year staggered terms across five city wards.

By having five city councilors up for election every year, citywide, the ability to set a unified city policy will be nonexistent. Merger proponents tout their proposal as a means to have consistency in policy making. How can turning over half of your city council every year allow for consistency? If you think Congress can’t set direction because all of them are up every two years, watch what happens when an entire city is in full election mode every year?

Per federal measures of economic activity, Auburn and Lewiston sit inside Maine’s fastest growing region of southern Maine, where we should be exploring work force, housing and transportation efforts with Portland and other southern Maine cities and towns. But the rhetoric of merger proponents would have you think we are isolated on a sinking ship.

There a great need to end the bias, perpetuated by the Joint Charter Commission and their allies, that Auburn and Lewiston must be parochial and inward looking to grow. We must expand our horizons.

But those emotions about powerhouses and prosperity are not on the ballot. A specific proposal that grants greater power to City Hall for borrowing money, reduces the public’s influence by petition, and sets the cities into perpetual election mode is on the ballot.

I urge residents of Lewiston and Auburn to vote “no” on consolidation.

Jonathan LaBonte is the mayor of Auburn.

Jonathan LaBonte

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