LEWISTON, Maine — The Twin Cities might be able to skip past merely consolidating services and departments and begin the work of merging into a single city, according to several Lewiston and Auburn city councilors Wednesday night.
The two groups didn’t settle anything at the special joint workshop meeting, but they did agree to make the idea the sole topic of a future workshop meeting.
“We need to have the courage to put this forward, because we are the ones dealing with the budgets,” Lewiston Councilor Mark Cayer said Wednesday. “We are the ones who are cutting services to the community.”
All but one councilor said they’d be willing to keep open minds, and many were downright enthusiastic.
Several councilors said it’s about time the cities seriously considered the matter.
“I am wholeheartedly behind this,” Lewiston Ward 2 Councilor Don D’Auteuil said. “It’s something I’ve said long before I was even elected. This makes sense, and there is more to it than just the dollars and cents. Maybe we can give more service for the same money and more efficiently. Maybe we can bring back some of the services we keep taking away.”
Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and a former Auburn city manager, said it’s the first time in his recollection that civic officials actually discussed in public the idea of merging the Twin Cities.
“I have never been more proud of the officials in my communities than I am tonight,” Morrison said. “I want to thank all of you for joining in what I think is an important discussion that has never been had in 35 years at a council level.”
Not everyone was a fan. Auburn Ward 5 Councilor Belinda Gerry said no one outside the two city halls cares about the topic, and she urged councilors to drop it and move on.
“I think this is going to be more trouble than it’s worth,” Gerry said. “I desperately oppose this. If it was really what the public wanted, they would be coming forward and telling us. But they’re not.”
However, most agreed it was worth considering, noting that nothing would happen if voters didn’t approve.
“I think this is an important step forward,” Councilor Joshua Shea said. “I’m sure there is some reason we cannot do this, and someone will just have to explain it to me.”
Lewiston Councilor Cayer said state law requires voters in the two cities to adopt a new charter outlining how they would deal with each city’s existing debt, real estate, tax policies, name and location of the municipal office.
There are two ways that charter process begins. In one, councilors from the two cities could draft a new charter and submit it to voters.
In the second, at least 1,000 residents from each city could file a petition proposing the merger. That would trigger a vote to elect a six-person charter commission, three from Lewiston and three from Auburn. That group would write the new charter and bring it back to voters for the final say.
Auburn Ward 4 Councilor David Young suggested a third alternative: The cities could put the matter to a nonbinding referendum this November to find out what residents think.
Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said there are bound to be some controversies, and predicted the idea of merging the schools would be one of the biggest.
“I would very much like to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where you convene the two School Committees and tell them there will be only one for both cities,” LaBonte said. “Ultimately, we both spend more than half our revenue on services that have never looked at consolidation. In fact, they fought tooth and nail to exempt themselves from the state consolidation law.”
The two cities have talked about cooperating off and on since 1996. In 2009, they identified $2 million in savings over five years by consolidating administrative positions, police, public works equipment purchases and economic development.
Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said much of those savings dried up as the Twin Cities’ governments reduced staff size and services. Merging the cities and the city councils might be the only way to realize any savings now, he said.
“How can we cooperate and have a single ‘Great Falls’ police department when you have two reporting entities and two policy bodies?” Barrett asked. “I think it’s very difficult.”
Councilors agreed to take up the topic at a future joint meeting devoted entirely to the idea of merging. But Auburn Councilor Robert Hayes said members of the public could make the council discussions moot.
“This could be taken right out of our hands,” Hayes said. “There are citizens in this community — both communities — that if they wanted to start the petition, they could do it tomorrow.”