The vote to decide whether or not Lewiston and Auburn merge is rapidly approaching with less than 3 weeks to go. A couple of months ago I wrote up an overview of the basic arguments for and against. There have been several debates, public hearings and developments since I wrote that blog. Stimulated by all of this progress, I have additional thoughts on the merger.
Note: Any of the criticisms below are not of the individual people, rather some of the ideas floating around L-A.
THE “INSULT” OF CRITICISM
We’ve talked a lot about the merger bringing potential improvements to L-A. In order for there to be improvements, we have to accept reality that there are things to be improved upon. When we talk about these obvious realities, some people feel insulted. To me, this is silly. We can criticize our country, our state, our cities, our spouses, ourselves, or whatever we want, without it being an insult. We criticize these things because we love them and we want them to reach their potential. Every election season we vote for candidates or referendum questions to improve us and move forward and this merger question is no different. Rather than playing the victim card of the opposing side disrespectfully insulting each other, we should focus on constructive criticisms of L-A and not see everything as a personal attack.
HOPE AND DREAMS
It’s been said that the pro-merger argument is fixated on “hope and dreams and pixie dust and unicorns.” I have no problem with this criticism of my mentality. Despite being a pragmatist, every day I look towards a better future built on big goals of accomplishing things that have never been done before. Much of what we love in our lives was once a “pie in the sky” dream, but now are taken for granted.
AN IMPENDING RE-EVALUATION
One of the criticisms that the anti-merger side has against the merger is the re-evaluation that it would trigger. I think this is one of a few strong arguments about the “cons” of merging. However, per Lewiston’s City Administrator Ed Barrett, a re-evaluation is likely coming in the next 5-10 years anyway. If the COLAC trusts Mr. Barrett’s analysis as they’ve strategically used before, they should trust his analysis even if he makes a point against an anti-merger argument.
IT WON’T FIX EVERYTHING!
A constant critique I hear of the pro-merger argument is that “The merger won’t magically fix everything!” Correct, 100% accurate. Coincidentally, no pro-merger person I’ve ever spoken to or heard speak has said anything close to that. Somehow “I think this merger could have the potential to improve some areas of our community” gets transformed to “The merger won’t fix everything!” I think we ought to do a better job at actually addressing the specific arguments that are made rather than using straw man arguments. It will help our civil dialogue over this divisive issue.
WHICH IS IT? CHAOS OR TYRANNICAL TRANSITION?
During the September 14th debate between Robert Reed and Gene Geiger, Mr. Reed attempted to critique the merger transition from both sides of an argument. He attempted to sell both the idea that the JCC would be a fundamental part of the transition team, controlling every little detail to their whims, while also saying that there is no certainty that what we approve with our votes would come to fruition during the transition, because of the uncertainty of who will do a given task. In my view, he attempted to tap into both sides of the argument: those who are afraid of the chaos of the unknown and those who are afraid of the tyranny of the ‘elite’ powerful. I think that we deserve to hear an official stance on exactly which transition experience we’re supposed to be fearing.
ELIMINATION OF DUPLICATE POSITIONS
We could remove duplicate positions within our local governments. This is one of the ways that we’d save money, by not paying two people to do the same work. It’s really the core concept of consolidating our resources. Every single tax payer wants to have their taxes reduced or stop out of control spending. We all talk about this, all the time! What we advocate for when we speak this truth is to end duplicate work. To accomplish this, the JCC has claimed there would be very little actual firing of anyone. Many of the jobs that are trimmed would be covered through promotions, job transitions, moving, retirement, and so forth.
Eliminating duplicate and wasteful positions in the government is exactly what fiscal conservatives (many who are against the merger) wish for. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get blinded by this fiscal intelligence when it involves our own community.
THE NEXT FIVE YEARS’ TAX RELIEF
I recently had a friendly conversation with an anti-merger advocate. He said that his biggest concern with the merger is that if it forces taxes to go up sharply, senior citizens who are on fixed incomes will not be able to pay such tax increases and be forced to move. I agree with him that we need to protect them and do everything we can to prevent that nightmare scenario. The potential of the merger is not going to increase taxes, but it will do the opposite by helping taxes stabilize. It’s the one option on the table to help those very senior citizens that he was concerned about. Every year Auburn’s taxes are going up 5% or more. Over the next few years at that same growth, the very scenario my conversation partner is scared of will come true. There are no alternative plans post-merger by any elected officials or local organizations like the COLAC to stop this tax growth. I share my friend’s concern for the senior citizens, but if not the merger, how do we help them financially? I ask this question sincerely and not rhetorically. What is to be done to stop the slow march to the nightmare scenario he fears?
A TEST OF BIAS
If you’re still looking for information on the merger, I recently wrote a letter to the editor of Sun Journal describing a test to expose bias to get an honest answer.
“There’s an easy test to see if someone is blinded by bias or if they’re giving you an honest analysis. Ask a Republican two questions: “Can you name three things Obama did well?” and “Can you name three things Trump has done poorly?” You can ask the Democrat the same two questions but in reverse. If the person is able to list just a few things that the opposing president has done well and party president has done poorly, they’re likely being honest in their analysis. If they can’t think of a single thing, then they’re just blinded by bias and don’t have an opinion to be valued highly. They’re relying on team sports politics and bias rather than an honest evaluation of the situation.
We can apply this same concept to the merger of Lewiston and Auburn.
Ask an anti-merger person “What are three good things that could come of the merger?”; and ask a pro-merger person “What are three bad things that could happen with the merger?”
Pro-merger folks are typically able to honestly lay out the potential challenges with the merger: long transition period, cohesion of ordinances, long term investment with work up front, etc. I haven’t seen the inverse, anti-merger folks able to list things that they think would be positive from the merger.
That is like a Democrat who couldn’t name a single thing Obama did that they didn’t like — it screams bias, rooted in feelings and gut rather than statistics, numbers or data.”
6-7 weeks later since submitting that, I have not seen a single anti-merger person pass this test, recognize or admit potential good things from the merger, despite being against it. I’m hopeful to having that changed one day to hear a truly unbiased analysis.
DEBATABLE TRANSITION COSTS
The transition costs that would exist if we merge have been hotly debated. They are at the focal point of the anti-merger argument in their belief that there won’t be savings, but could actually be additional expenses to merge. If they’re wrong on just the transition costs, it would eliminate a lot of their fiscal argument at why the merger wouldn’t improve our financial situation.
COLAC’s Robert Reed has estimated $5m dollars to transition costs. In a thorough article, the JCC has broken down Mr. Reed’s numbers one by one showing why he is incorrect and why it’s a fraction of his estimates. Despite these contradictions, at a recent meeting between some JCC members and some COLAC members, it is said by Reed in the September 14th debate and “certified” by Jim Howaniec that Gene Geiger asked Governor LePage directly for $5m in transition costs. Despite Mr. Howaniec “certifying” this, it’s simply not true, as confirmed by COLAC’s own Bob Stone who was at the meeting.
Gene Geiger asked if there was anything Governor LePage could do to help with the merger. Governor LePage does have a discretionary fund to help economic development, of which he may be able to provide funds to help with the transition costs, whatever exact number they may be.
CHOOSE A MAYOR REGARDLESS OF THEIR MERGER VOTE
Some people are choosing a mayor to vote for in Lewiston or Auburn in 2017 solely on the candidate’s merger preference. I have even seen someone cite that you cannot trust someone’s entire business judgment based on their preference for a merger. This seems emotionally based and not logic or value based.
Both cities’ mayoral terms would end before the merger would even start, there’d be a whole new election. We should vote for mayors based on their experiences and qualifications based on the very limited powers that the mayors have. Mayors are extremely limited in what they can accomplish. Communication, transparency, following the city rules and being a symbol for their given city is most of what they do.
Should the merger fail and behind us, we’ll be with the mayors we vote in for 2 full years and we should make sure the right qualified candidates are in office to represent us, regardless of their preference for a consolidation.
AFTER THE VOTE, WHAT’S NEXT?
If the merger passes, there will be two years of challenge, negotiations, meetings and overall hard work to transition the cities to what the JCC has advertised. That could be a novel’s length blog entry all in its own, so for now I’d like to focus on what we do together should the vote fail.
IF IT FAILS, LET’S WAIT 10 YEARS BEFORE REVISITING
If the merger vote fails this November, it’s eligible to be back on the ballot in in just 5 years. For that to happen, the work would begin for the JCC in just two years from now. In my opinion, we should not do that. We should wait 10 full years (or 8 years until the JCC were to revisit.) As a minimum, we should wait the 10 years for three reasons:
- This issue has been incredibly divisive, as all tough decisions to make great change and improvements are. Our community is going to need time to heal, unite and move forward before re-opening these wounds.
- We must respect the will of the voters. After all of the time, effort, money, debates and advertising the JCC and OneLA will have done by November 7th 2017, if the voters of our community reject the merger, we must respect their decision. Bringing it back in just a few years would be disrespectful.
- The professor who specializes in Public Policy and Governance wrote this article about cities merging, and he told me in an email that mergers only (pass and) work when cities believe they would fail without each other. Enough has to change (the challenges we agree upon further getting worse) for people to feel they must merge in order to survive. A few shorts years may not be enough to show people the opportunity we missed.
GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATIONS FOR PROGRESS MUST CONTINUE
The merger has brought out something great in our sister cities, and that’s a lot of passionate people getting involved with community talking about the best way for us to be governed and the best ways to improve our lives. That energy needs to be channeled into continued grassroots organization if the merger were to fail.
We all recognize that we need transparency and accountability in our government. We need greater economic development. We need stronger school systems, we need to keep more youth here in Maine and L-A, we need to help protect our senior citizens from escalating property taxes and much more. People on both sides of the merger agree with all of this. The major difference between us is the best way for that to happen: the merger or a different way. Should the merger fail, we’ll have to fight for those things to happen on and individual case by case basis rather than as a whole change, with consolidation.
There’s a lot of great people on both sides of the merger and they should come together. I think that there should be a “bi-partisan” (COLAC and OneLA) group of people who unite to work on the very things we all agree that we need. The passion can’t stop simply because something (the merger) didn’t happen. We need to help make things happen. I’m open to and would volunteer to work with anyone from any organization on both sides of the merger.
Thank you for reading!
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