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May 29, 2017
Focus: Lewiston/Auburn

A merger of Lewiston and Auburn would save money, but critics worry at what cost

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
FOR AND AGAINST: Peter Rinck of Rinck Advertising, left, and attorney Jim Howaniec stand on the James B. Longley Bridge between Lewiston and Auburn. Rinck is in favor of the proposed merger of the two cities, while Howaniec opposes the idea. Voters will get their say in November.
Photo / Lori Valigra
Paul Poliquin, former Lewiston city councilor and owner of Paulís Clothing & Shoe Store Inc. at 281 Lisbon St. in Lewiston, says heís neutral about the pending referendum and merger of Lewiston and Auburn, and that the voters should decide.

Lewiston-Auburn merger study highlights

Total annualized savings of $2.3 million to $4.2 million

Over 10 years savings would total $1,900 for typical Lewiston property and $1,050 for Auburn

One police department would result in more officers on the street and fewer administrators

One fire department would result in improved responses with emergencies addressed by the closest unit

One school department would create the largest, most comprehensive district in Maine, offering greater specialization and student choices

Source: CGR final report January 2017

The march toward the merger*

MRS 30A, Subsection 2151–2152, Consolidation, Secession and Annexation, covers the merger and the binding referendum expected on the Nov. 7 municipal election ballot.

6/13/14: Voters in Lewiston and Auburn approve a petition to move toward merging the two cities. They also chose six charter commissioners, three from each city, who were sworn in to create the plan for the unification.

7/7/14: Commissioners begin work.

8/28/14: Commission starts to hold a series of public meetings for comment; sets up subcommittees internally and meets one to three times a month.

1/1/17: CGR completes report on impact of merger on cities, with recommendations to merge departments and estimates of costs and savings.

6/8/17: Commission to name the new city.

6/30/17: Commission aims to hold final public meeting by the end of June to get comments for final report, which will trigger referendum to be listed on November ballot.

11/7/17: Vote on merging the cities. The referendum must pass in both cities.

11/8/17: A new group will be chosen to execute the merger and formulate more details for how it will happen The goal is to have the cities merged by 2020. Debt held by each city prior to the passage will be the responsibility of each city until it is paid off, around 2025. Debt incurred by merged city will be serviced by merged city.

* This will be the fourth attempt in recent years, with others in 1996, 2006 and 2009.

SOURCE: Chip Morrison, secretary, Joint Charter Commission

Rhetoric about the pending November referendum to merge Lewiston and Auburn is heating up, with proponents saying combining the cities would save a minimum of $2.3 million annually by eliminating redundancies and cutting taxes for all, while opponents worry each city would lose its identity and the savings would be less than projected.

"This is a very important issue to be decided by the voters," says Paul Poliquin, a former Lewiston city councilor and owner of Paul's Clothing & Shoe Store Inc. on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. He adds he is neutral about the referendum and merger. Poliquin says his business will not be impacted whether or not the proposed referendum passes, but he does see some costs, including changing duplicate street names in each city that could confuse emergency responders.

That's only the tip of the iceberg. Redundant municipal services and personnel must be merged, different tax rates must be brought on par, a plan to pay off each city's pre-merger debt must be put into action and the school districts must be brought together. Each affects the life of residents and businesses. Lewiston has more people, with 36,299, making it the second-largest population in Maine behind Portland. Auburn has 22,912 people, ranking it fifth. But Auburn has almost twice the land area of Lewiston.

Only a handful of U.S. municipalities have merged to date, including Dover-Foxcroft, partly because of the long and detailed process to get a referendum onto the ballot, and partly because of the polar stances between those who do and don't want it. There already are pro and con advocacy groups in the twin cities, One LA and the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation. Even those who are neutral question how the lead-up to the potential merger is being handled.

Poliquin says that merging the cities is "the brainchild of a small group of businessmen who don't represent the grassroots of the community. It's top down rather than bottom up."

Others, like Chip Morrison, secretary of the Joint Charter Commission charged with creating a merger plan and naming the combined city, says the two neighbors already share a lot. That includes a mutual agreement to protect the Lake Auburn watershed, which provides drinking water for both cities, and trading off maintenance of the James B. Longley Bridge, which connects Main Street in downtown Lewiston to Court Street in downtown Auburn.

"We have so much more in common than differences," says Morrison, former president and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and former city manager of Auburn. He is now the business development officer at Androscoggin Bank in Lewiston.

He also notes that the cities' boundary may be as murky as merging some of their other services. The boundary is somewhere in the Androscoggin River.

Morrison estimates there are 3,000 businesses in the two communities. Maureen Aube, vice president of operations at the chamber, which has remained neutral on the issue so far, says the organization has no figures on how many total business owners, including chamber members, live in Lewiston and Auburn and thus would be eligible to vote.

Even those who don't live in either city but who do business in it have strong opinions, like Peter Rinck, CEO of Rinck Advertising, and a 2014 Mainebiz Business Leader of the Year. He moved from a building in Auburn to Lewiston in February to double his space, bringing with him 37 employees.

"We are highly pro," Rinck says. "With twin cities, it's an expensive vanity to have two of everything. Taxes continue to go up and services continue to be cut in both places and throughout the United States."

He says some of the expected savings from a merged city could be returned to taxpayers, but he'd like to see them reinvested in the school system or the beautification of downtown.

"I run a business and I want to decrease redundancies and increase efficiencies," Rinck says. "That's how you invest and grow. It's a chance for L/A to take a remarkably aggressive approach. We'll create a bold symbol that we're a progressive community."

Marching toward the merger

The detailed process to get a merger referendum on the ballot is covered under the Maine Revised Statutes 30-A, Subsection 2152. First a petition must be presented to get the initial vote to explore the referendum. That happened in 2014, when the Joint Charter Commission was voted in by the necessary 1,000 votes in each city, as were voters' choices in each city for the three members to represent them on the commission, which began its work on July 7, 2014.

After a series of public meetings and a report on the data behind the merger from Rochester, N.Y., consulting firm CGR, which was hired by the community governments, Morrison says the commission's own merger plan report is 99% complete, waiting only on the city name, to be announced June 8. After that there will be public hearings soliciting comments about the plan in both cities, and when those meetings are completed the referendum will be drafted for the Nov. 7 ballot.

City names in the running — and he emphasizes nothing has been decided yet, and the commission has received thousands of suggestions — include combinations of Lewiston Auburn, names derived from "Andro" (Androscoggin County, where both cities lie) and Great Falls, the name of the waterfalls separating the two cities.

One of the CGR report's findings that drew controversy is its summary that most businesses and residents will see tax savings, and that the total annualized savings for the merged city could range from $2.3 million to $4.2 million.

Over 10 years, the commission notes, the average savings could total $1,900 for a typical Lewiston property and $1,050 for Auburn. The report also points to specific savings from merging departments and eliminating redundancies, which Morrison and others say will largely be through retirement and attrition. Annual recurring savings for city operations could be $715,000.

Past vs. future?

Critics of the merger have been accused of wanting to live in the past. Some wonder what will happen to the cities' identities or the rivalries between the two high school football teams.

"My sense is this is not going to pass," says Jim Howaniec, an attorney born and raised in Lewiston and the city's former mayor, elected in 1989. He has been a vocal opponent to the merger. "There's a disconnect between the business community and the general population on this issue. I've lived here all my life. People have an emotional connection here.

"I feel very protective of Lewiston, so I feel many people on the Auburn side feel that way," he adds. "My biggest complaint is it is not a grassroots movement, but a top-down one from the business community."

"The other side says you are living in the past, living in 'Mayberry RFD.,'" he adds, referring to the late 1960s sitcom about small-town America. "It's their [the pro side's] burden of proof to dismiss two centuries of history." He adds that his law firm will see no difference in its own business whether or not the cities merge.

Tom Platz, principal of Platz Associates, an Auburn architectural firm that has worked on rehabbing the Bates Mill Complex and other projects including Two Great Falls Plaza and Lewiston-Auburn College (a campus of the University of Southern Maine), says the pro-merger side was a grassroots effort. It included Morrison; Gene Geiger of the Geiger Group; and Holly Lasagna, an associated director at Bates College. They went to the state to get approval to start the Joint Charter Commission. It is funded by $50,000 in local private donations, including Platz's, and the state matched it up to $50,000. Gov. Paul LePage, a Lewiston native, has been a vocal supporter of the merger.

Platz, who was born in Lewiston, grew up in Auburn and lives there. He says the 1922 merger of the small towns of Dover and Foxcroft, which as of the 2010 U.S. Census had a population of 4,213 and 68 square miles of land spanning the Piscataquis River, also incurred hiccups, even though it was a comparatively small-scale merger.

"There were six to eight attempts to merge the towns, but in the 1922 vote it passed by an overwhelming majority because women got the right to vote in 1920," Platz says.

It will take until 2020 for the Lewiston-Auburn merger details to be implemented, even if the referendum passes, he says. His company, which has developments on both sides of the river, won't get any direct windfall from the merger's savings, he says.

"An extra $1,200 per month [in tax savings] doesn't do anything. I'd rather see the city build a parking garage, because that has a big effect on drawing people in. We already share so much," Platz says.

Dealing with one planning board, and having prospective tenants realize that they're not just coming to one small city, but to a metropolitan area that he feels might someday rival Portland with its available parking and low housing prices, are the bigger benefits, he says.

His company just brought in San Francisco-based health care technology company Grand Rounds, which had also looked at Baltimore, Boston, Newport, Biddeford, Portland and Lewiston. Grand Rounds said it expects to create 150 jobs within five years. It located its first East Coast operations in Lewiston's Bates Mill No. 6.

Carl Sheline, campaign co-manager of One LA and officer manager at Center Street Dental in Auburn, acknowledges there are strong feelings of identity on both sides of the river, but there are new benefits to merging the cities while still retaining their history.

"We have to stop thinking about the past and look at the future," he says, citing efficiencies from having one city government, economies of scale in purchases, improved city services and a decrease in property taxes, which is important for businesses. "We'll still have Auburn's Edward Little Red Eddys and Lewiston's Blue Devils. Once people start thinking about it, they'll realize we can keep who we are and move forward together."

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