By Jonathan P. LaBonte
Mayor of Auburn
Last week, a meeting was held by the charter commission, which was established to propose a merger of Auburn and Lewiston. The primary focus of the meeting was to deliver a report on operational savings the commission projects might be possible and to explain how a new city, created out of Auburn and Lewiston, would function.
While there will be plenty of time to get into each detail of what problem a proposed merger may be attempting to solve and the pros and cons of how the commission proposed doing that, it might be valuable to highlight what the law states must be put forward by a merger commission. Keep in mind, the merger commission has been meeting for about two-and-a-half years to work on these items.
First, the names of the municipalities. This is pretty straight forward.
Second, the name under which it is proposed to consolidate. As of last Wednesday, there was still not a proposed name for a merged Auburn and Lewiston. Given the politics of a name, it’s understandable that there’s hesitancy to put one forward. We will see.
Third, the property, real and personal, belonging to each municipality, and its fair value. A summary report was issued in June of 2016 that showed the value of assets owned by both cities as of June, 2015. The state statute seems pretty clear that a full list will be required, not a summary.
It will be interesting to see the full documentation at some point, as this will help us to understand the state of repair of those assets and potential hidden and on-going costs that would be extended to the other city’s taxpayers under a merger.
Fourth, the indebtedness, bonded and otherwise, of each municipality needs to be outlined. It’s unclear what state statute intends to have documented by stating “and otherwise,” but the existing debt of each city is outlined in the June 2016 report.
Lewiston current has about $135.7 million and Auburn owes about $68.8 million. The debt outstanding does raise questions about the state of repair for the roads, water and sewer lines in both cities, and that should be understood going in to any vote.
Fifth, the commission was to propose a name and location of the municipal office. From my review of documents, along with not proposing a name, this has not been done either. Will city hall be on the east or west side of the river and what will the rationale be for doing so? One might predict the commission would propose two municipal offices, to avoid the political fallout of one over the other. But if the intent of their work is to create one city and streamline it, state law is specific in calling for “the” singular municipal office.
Sixth, the merger commission has to put forward a proposed charter. This is the document that will determine what happens after any vote. The proposed charter continues with the practice of having a hired administrator to run the city, except that administrator would now have a city council of 11 attempting to manage his or her work, rather than the seven councilors in each city that do that currently.
The combined city would have five wards, as Auburn does now. Rather than Auburn ward councilors representing about 5,000 residents each, that number would rise to 12,000 citizens per councilor.
The seventh item is the terms for apportioning tax rates to service the existing bonded indebtedness of the respective municipalities. The merger commission recommended each city would retire the debt it had already taken on. Once the merger is complete, all new debt would be paid by all residents.
It will be important to understand any obligations either city has that could force substantial new debt early in the merger.
And last, but not least, the merger commission can offer, as state law says, any other necessary and proper facts and terms. It appears this broad language is the basis for the dozens of workgroups assembled over the last year to suggest how the combined cities would save money or change how they provide services.
The merger commission has a website with some of the documents they have created to date. You can find that at http://newlacharter.ning.com/. If you use Facebook, there are two groups where debate on this topic has played out; “Lewiston Rocks” and “Civility & Respect in Auburn Politics.”
I encourage you to read up on this topic and join the debate. As my review of these documents as mayor continues, I will share with you what I believe the impacts are for not only our taxpayers, but the broader region.