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Op-Ed: Lewiston-Auburn merger will result in higher, not lower, taxes

By Jim Howaniec

We live in a world of immediate gratification, over-simplification and quick fixes. Thus it comes as no surprise that some believe a “merger” of Lewiston and Auburn is a “game changing” answer to the problems that afflict us.

If we merely merge, the argument goes, Lewiston and Auburn will become an economic “powerhouse.”

In municipal government, like most things in life, there are no quick fixes.  An analysis of actual facts—rather than mere wishful thinking—leads to a disturbing conclusion: city mergers not only do not save money, the resulting bigger governments actually end up costing taxpayers much more in the end. Higher taxes, obviously, are bad for economic development.

The proposal to merge Lewiston and Auburn begs an obvious question: if municipal mergers are such a great idea, then why are there not more of them? There have been about 10 city mergers in the past 30 years, out of nearly 90,000 local governments in the United States. Why have places like Biddeford-Saco, Bath-Brunswick, Bangor-Brewer and numerous other Maine communities not likewise considered merger?

Surely the members of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission are not the only ones in the country who have thought about this great idea?

The answer is obvious: municipal mergers simply do not work. In fact, they do more harm than good.

Municipal governments are labor intensive. Thus, city budgets are generally “fixed” from year to year. Some 80 percent of local budgets are related to union contract costs: salaries, cost-of-living increases, health and retirement benefits, workers compensation premiums, etc. At the local level, the only way to cut spending in any meaningful way is to lay off city employees.

The Joint Charter Commission is asserting that a merged Lewiston-Auburn will save the new city upwards of $40 million over the next decade. This reckless estimate would require dozens of layoffs of teachers, police officers, public works employees and firefighters. To realize their unrealistic proposed savings, city services would need to be scaled back devastatingly.

The damage would not end there.  Not only would there be major layoffs of city employees, there would be a dramatic “leveling up” of union contract costs. In other words, when new collective bargaining contracts are negotiated after a merger, the unions would demand salaries and benefits at the level (and beyond) being paid by whichever of the two cities is currently paying the higher amount.

The Joint Charter Commission does not talk much about its own analysis that this “leveling up” of union contracts will increase city spending by upwards of $16 million over the next 10 years.  Our side actually believes that union contracts will cost significantly more—upwards of $30 million—because the Joint Charter Commission has underestimated school contract costs and completely ignored the costs of all city benefits in its calculations.

Of the very few local governments that have merged over the years, most have involved populations under 3,000. In each case, taxes have increased post-merger, sometimes dramatically. In Oak Island, South Carolina, for example, per capita spending is between two and three times higher than it was before consolidation.

Suburban towns near Indianapolis and St. Louis, that had projected huge savings (as are being projected for Lewiston-Auburn), ended up realizing no such savings after a decade of merger. Municipalities in Canada are actually de-merging, having come to recognize the error of their ways.

The one big “success” that the Joint Charter Commission keeps coming back to—the consolidation of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township—is now experiencing higher taxes and a larger municipal workforce, a mere five years after their merger.

Lewiston and Auburn have made significant economic progress in recent years as separate municipal corporations that have often worked well together to promote the overall economic health of the region. Why would we want to interrupt that great progress by imposing this radical “quick fix” that has been such a failure in those extremely rare cases where towns have merged?

There has never been any significant grassroots call for a merger from the general public in either Auburn or Lewiston. It is a pet project that has unnecessarily caused divisiveness in the community. It is a bad idea that will raise taxes significantly in Lewiston and Auburn; for that reason alone, it should be defeated soundly at the polls this November.

Jim Howaniec is a local attorney with an office on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. He is a former mayor of Lewiston and Assistant Attorney General.  He serves as the chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation.

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