In November 2017 residents of Lewiston and Auburn will head to polls to vote on a whether the cities should merge. It must receive a majority of the vote in both cities to pass. If you’re undecided and are seeking more information on the pros and cons of the merger then you’ve come to the right place. This is a run down of major points of contention and how I reached my ultimate conclusion to support the merger.
Analysis of Benefits
The Joint Charter Commission is made up of several business people from Lewiston and Auburn who drafted a charter of the merger along with a Consultant’s assistance. Let’s assume for a moment that their work is accurate so we can review potential benefits. The doubts section below it will discuss if the savings and numbers are off.
Potential budget savings are a big factor towards the merger being successful. The JCC reports that the savings could be at least $2.3 million dollars per year, maybe even higher. They estimate that consolidating some staff, downgrading repetitive positions and improving communication systems will create more buying power for purchasing savings and other benefits. The savings over decade could be $40 million. With these potential savings, among many other benefits like improved services and tax payer money going to more efficient costs, there could be tax stabilization.
It’s no secret that taxes continue to raise on Mainers. The merger could offer a reprieve to the ever-increasing taxes. The JCC has acknowledged that they can’t guarantee a specific number but it is likely that taxes will decelerate. I don’t think that taxes will go down from existing levels but they could stop raising at current trends netting tax payers more money in their wallets.
Increased Community Unity
Lewiston and Auburn are known for being sister cities – It’s one of the reasons why the merger makes so much sense. The government is one area where they do not work together often. With one mayor, one city council and one set of officials, there will be much less bureaucracy and much less of an “our side of the river” feel. Both cities’ success will be even further tied together as the community unites stronger.
Outsider Hype & Buzz Effect
By merging, our town will receive an undeniable amount of hype and buzz. Across the state, eyes will be on L-A’s progress for growing pains and successes. This level of buzz will be attractive and exciting, gaining us attention in the form of residents and new businesses. For an area and a state that is lacking transplants and youth, excitement about coming here is a wonderful thing.
Courage to Look to the Future
Many things that once worked well in the past do not any more. We can be trailblazers of progress and innovation. It’s takes real courage and vision to focus not just where we are now but where we will be in the future.
Analysis of Doubts
There are some compelling concerns that are worth considering. I have done my best to be as fair and honest as possible with an unbiased analysis. You may notice that there are far more reasons that people have come out against the merger than for it.
Savings are Disputed/Doubted
Much of the argument against the merger is that the savings will not materialize. It’s claimed by some that the JCC & Consultant’s numbers are so off that not only will there not be the vast savings, but that it will end up costing tax payers millions more. To my knowledge, there are two main pieces of data that the Coalition Opposed to the Lewiston Auburn Consolidation (COLAC) cite: $1.6m in costs was not properly deducted from the savings, and an incorrect assessment of Lewiston’s taxes. These two pieces of data are concerning, as it diminishes some of the JCC’s proposed savings. Marc Roy of OneLA addressed the $1.6m in the Sun Journal. It is my belief that the savings would still be lucrative (especially with Roy’s logical explanation) despite these mathematical inaccuracies.
No Certainty or Guarantee
The strongest argument out of the anti-merger ideas is the concept that nothing is certain or guaranteed. They’re 100% right.
All throughout the JCC report and their literature are words like “potential” “possible” “likely” and “confident.” Opponents to the merger see this as a bad thing. In my early analysis of the merger I thought it was bad as well, but the more I thought about it the more I am happy with it.
Firstly, this is remarkably transparent and refreshing language used in politics that we do not typically see. Secondly, it’s okay that much of savings are potential. No one who gets married, has a kid, starts a new job, funds their retirement, gets in a vehicle or votes for a politician is certain of the outcome. But we use our best judgement and make bold decisions for a chance at a better future. The merger’s potential is a great example of that. If we didn’t act due to uncertainty we would never move forward.
More Powerful/Bigger Government
Another anti-merger argument is that consolidating will yield a bigger government with more bureaucracy. While it’s true that one city council and one mayor would create more responsibility (serving the combined L/A population) this objection quite astonishes me. Consolidating to reduce duplicate positions, get communication systems on the same page and the removal of too many decision makers is the opposite of bigger government and more bureaucracy. For some reason when it involves our cities it’s not seen that way.
L/A Community Already Works Together
Another anti-merger argument is that we do not need to combine governments because the two towns already work together enough as it is. Why require the governments to do so? The point emphasizes how we work together (and implies it is successful) but then says we shouldn’t do more. What this argument doesn’t acknowledge is that while many organizations work together frequently, the municipal governments do not. If we identify that working together is one of our strengths then why see more collaboration as a bad thing?
Loss of Town Identity
Some anti-merger folks have said that they feel there would be a loss of town identity. All of one’s memories still exist and the past goes unchanged. The proposed name of the merged towns is “Lewiston-Auburn” so the individual names are always to exist. There will always be people referring to “The Lewiston side of town” and “The Auburn side of town” just like there is today. The merging of governments doesn’t make one lose an identity or the past.
Auburn Citizens Will Pay Higher Taxes For Lewiston’s Immigrant/Welfare Population
Some Auburn residents feel like they will take on an additional burden from Lewiston’s social safety net programs like welfare, housing, food stamps and immigrant population. A large majority of social safety net is federally funded and the Somali population’s unemployment rate is around 5% just like native-born Mainers. I haven’t seen a reason for this more than it being a “gut feeling.”
The Merger Doesn’t Address The Agreed Upon Challenges
During the debate of the merger Jim Howaniec (against) agreed with Gene Geiger’s (for) assessment of the challenges that L/A and Maine face; demographic changes, an aging population, factory and mill jobs dwindling, youth leaving in Maine, etc. The COLAC has said that the merger doesn’t respond to any of these agreed upon challenges. I think they are wrong.
If the JCC’s savings come to fruition and business and residents taxes stabilize, that will be very attractive to outsiders. If the schools have more buying power and can get better technology and goods for the schools along with school specialization (having many schools, some can specialize in different things) recently married adults like myself will see the L/A school system as more attractive. If the hype attracts anyone or retains young adults to the area, that is all a net gain from the merger. If Lewiston-Auburn’s already safe streets get even safer, that’s just one more benefit. When businesses can hire more or move into the area due to our growth and economic gains, that will open up more doors for workers. It’ll also help create “things to do” as that’s a main criticism of people who leave our state.
Although Maine’s and L/A’s easily recognizable challenges do not disappear because of the merger, even a stabilization of population loss or taxes is considered a win. Just like during a recession, breaking even is viewed as a success when other similar companies lose profits. Limiting the damage to the area is something worth fighting for. Just because it doesn’t solve every problem imaginable doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing.
Other Mergers Aren’t A Good Comparison And Didn’t Go Well
The most commonly referenced success story of a merger is the Princeton Borough and Township merger of 2013. However, many criticize this use of an example saying how their taxes are too high and list reasons they’re too different from L/A. The same people will then give lots of reasons why that merger wasn’t as successful as claimed. You can’t dismiss this merger as a false comparison of cities and then go on to use it as an example of why L/A merging wouldn’t work. I request that some sort of civil agreement is reached – is Princeton a fair comparison or not? My thought is that we can use it as a model and improve upon, like learning lessons from an older, yet unique, sibling.
Why Haven’t Other Similar Connected Cities (Bangor-Brewer) Merged?
“If mergers are a good idea, why haven’t other similar cities done it?” There are three major reasons why. First – L/A is uniquely intertwined and connected unlike most other sister cities out there. Others may be adjacent but L/A works together and shares resources in many different ways like the river that connects us. Second, it takes an incredible amount of political will and strength to pull off a merger. I don’t think many towns and politicians are willing to put themselves out there and risk the political consequences unless the people ask for it by it passing both city’s votes. Lastly, Maine has changed a lot and will continue to do so. Just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean that it won’t be common in the future. Some one has to “go first”.
As you can see, the merger is an extremely nuanced topic with lots and potential, lots of doubt and lots of gray area. Liberal Democrats are for and against and I’ve seen conservative Republicans for and against. It’s truly a non-partisan issue. With all of the numbers, data and potential being discussed, anyone who is speaking in absolute certainties is likely allowing their bias to get the better of them.
I believe that the potential reward vs the doubts and risk is worth it. As the decades go by, I fear that we will have to answer to our children and grandchildren about why we were paralyzed into inaction rather than making an investment of time and energy to make our community better.
With all of that said, the will of the voters of our Lewiston-Auburn community must be upheld. Although I am a passionate supporter of the merger, if either town votes against it, then that result needs to be respected. Whichever way the vote falls, we must move forward together as a community. My hope is that should it pass, citizens who opposed the merger are able to say the same thing. It would take everyone pulling together in the same direction to make the merger a success.
UPDATE 10/16/17: I have written a second blog entry on the merger with additional analysis with thoughts and updates from July-October since this original entry.
By no means is this analysis completely comprehensive. More info from both sides of the issue are seen below:
The debate between Gene Geiger and Jim Howaniec that took place at CMCC on June 20th, 2017 can be seen here. The second debate, by Gene Geiger and Robert Reed on September 14th, 2017 is located here. The third debate, September 25th, 2017 by Chip Morrison (for) and Councilor Bob Stone (against) can be viewed via Facebook stream.
For more information supporting the Lewiston-Auburn merger visit any of the following resources:
- Lewiston-Auburn Charter’s Main Website
- Consolidation Options and Impacts
- One LA Facebook Page
- One LA Main Website
For more information opposing the Lewiston-Auburn merger visit any of the following resources:
Full disclosure: My name is James and I work at the same company that the Chair of the JCC, Gene Geiger, is President of. Although I work at the same place, I do not represent the company, the thoughts and opinions expressed above are my own. I researched the merger for nearly six months prior to making my personal decision to support it. I was a true undecided voter for a long time until the debate between Jim and Gene helped solidify my position. Politics and community means an incredible amount to me and I didn’t come to my decision lightly.
I’m a resident of Auburn, a member of the Auburn Democrats, the Maine Young Dems, Maine People’s Alliance, and the Chair of the Androscoggin County Young Dems