LEWISTON, Maine — Jim Nelson of Lewiston supports his city merging with Auburn, but not without reservations: He’s worried it would hike his property tax bill, but he works for the businessman leading the push and trusts that his boss wouldn’t do anything “detrimental.”
But with a nod across the Androscoggin River, he said Auburn voters are likely to kill the effort.
“They do have more to lose,” Nelson said while paying for lunch on Tuesday at Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in downtown Lewiston.
Majorities in each city will have to vote Nov. 7 to create Lewiston-Auburn, combining the two municipalities into a 59,000-strong city with just 8,000 fewer people than Portland, Maine’s biggest city. A merger would create the state’s largest school system.
Many — especially in Auburn, with 13,000 fewer people than Lewiston — agree with Nelson. Proponents, including Gov. Paul LePage, have identified millions in cost savings, but there’s a lot of skepticism.
At the lunch counter at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn on Tuesday, Mark Blanchard, 55, didn’t buy the cost-savings argument and said “a bigger city has bigger needs.”
“I don’t want to see it change,” said Norman Pichette, 81, of Auburn. “Leave it the way it is.”
What are the basics of the merger? The road maps for the merger are a draft charter and consolidation agreement that are up for approval during the election. Those are informed by a study conducted for the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission that opponents dismiss.
Lewiston-Auburn would be led by 10 city councilors and a manager alongside a mayor with no administrative duties or term limits. Auburn City Hall would house government. The police and fire departments would merge.
The cities would create a 9,000-student school system — exceeding Portland because of high rates of African immigration — with a 10-member board. The report doesn’t recommend closing any schools, so Lewiston and Edward Little high schools would remain.
The merger study identified between $2.3 million and $4.2 million in annual savings, resulting in a modest property tax reduction of $1,900 in Lewiston and $1,050 in Auburn for an average homeowner over a 10-year period.
Gene Geiger, chairman of the charter commission and CEO of Geiger, a promotional products company, talks aspirationally about the new city, saying it could combine economic development efforts and be an “incubator of government reinvention” in Maine.
However, opponents contend that spending will rise. Former Lewiston Mayor Jim Howaniec, an attorney who chairs the anti-merger Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, said while the merger “sounds good on paper,” it stems from “Portland wannabe-ism.”
“This notion that competing with Auburn is somehow going to disadvantage us when trying to attract business, I don’t think that’s a reality,” he said.
How did Lewiston and Auburn get here? Partial mergers shaped the communities, which became cities in the 1860s. Auburn grew into Maine’s fourth-largest city by area after annexing a town and parts of Poland and Minot, Lewiston absorbed parts of Greene and what is now Sabattus.
There’s a cultural rivalry between the two, but they have also cooperated. They formed a fire protection district, a railroad and a water district in the 1800s. After World War II, they made an old Navy airfield their municipal airport and Lewiston’s public water comes from Lake Auburn.
They still share some services, but a 2006 study from a consolidation commission said the cities could save $2 million annually by merging certain administrative functions and called for “extensive public discussion and education” about a merger.
Now, they’re getting one: Supporters gathered enough signatures to form the joint charter commission under Maine law, and voters in Lewiston and Auburn picked representatives in a low-turnout June 2014 election.
Auburn may be the center of opposition, but proponents and opponents don’t line up cleanly along political or city lines. There’s a sense locally that Auburn has more to lose in a merger than Lewiston, but the political divisions aren’t intuitive.
LePage and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald support it, but Auburn Mayor Jonathan Labonte, a Republican who runs LePage’s policy office, last week came out against it on a public access show hosted by Howaniec, who is a Democrat.
Three members of Lewiston’s Democratic legislative delegation — Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nate Libby, Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden and Rep. Roger Fuller — support a merger. Reps. Jim Handy and Heidi Brooks didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
“The greatest cities in the world span the river and don’t let the river divide them,” Fuller said.
The two Republicans in Auburn’s delegation — Sen. Eric Brakey and Rep. Bruce Bickford — oppose it, while one Democrat, Rep. Bettyann Sheats, supports it. Rep. Gina Melaragno, D-Auburn, said she’s undecided.
“I think if we can look at ways to consolidate services that would actually cut overhead and expenses, then Lewiston and Auburn should do that,” Brakey said. “I don’t think you need to be one city to do that.”
The November campaign is being waged on a few fronts. The charter commission — a public body — is chaired by Geiger, who lives in Lewiston. The pro-merger campaign is led by One LA. They’re opposed by COLAC.
Why does this matter for the rest of Maine? Municipal mergers are rare nationally. Maine hasn’t seen one since Dover-Foxcroft was formed in 1922. Maine also had the seventh-highest per capita rate of local government units among states in 2012, according to Governing magazine.
LePage has pushed for municipal consolidation during his tenure, often referencing his experience as Waterville mayor. There have been few results, but the state budget passed this year included $5 million for a program designed to help cities and towns combine services.
The governor is involved: He gave $50,000 from his taxpayer-funded contingency account to fund nearly a third of the commission’s study and lobbied opponents at a lunch earlier this month in Lewiston.
So a Lewiston-Auburn merger would create a city to rival Portland, show that it’s possible here and accomplish one of LePage’s goals. But there’s built-in opposition because any merger runs against Maine culture.
Opponents say the governor and proponents have misread the political situation. Howaniec said while COLAC will campaign “like we’re 20 points down,” he’s confident that his side will win.
“They’re going to lose in both cities by a large margin,” he said.
Geiger didn’t sound confident, saying “at best, it’s going to be close” and there is “enormous resistance to it.” If it fails, he said a merger shouldn’t be brought up for another generation and he won’t be leading it.
“I’m doing everything that I possibly can and when it’s done, I’m going to be satisfied that we’ve done the best we can,” he said. “And then, I’m done. Then I’m done, done, done.”