Evaluate merger of cities without fear of change

The arguments that have been raised against merger to date appear to be aimed more at the gut than the brain.

REARVIEW MIRROR: Evaluate merger of cities without fear of change

Opponents of the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission’s proposed municipal merger would do well to recall President Franklin Roosevelt’s stirring words during the Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Change is almost always emotionally unsettling. However, that’s no reason to reject it out of hand, because the changes we carefully plan, as opposed to changes which overtake us when we’re not looking, can produce immense benefits.

Projected benefits of the proposed merger, in addition to fiscal savings, include more effective economic development, increased opportunities for specialization in education and greater clout with state and federal government.

While there can certainly be legitimate concerns about potential collateral damage from a merger, the arguments that have been raised against merger to date appear to be aimed more at the gut than the brain. At the risk of oversimplification, these can be summarized as follows:

1. Bigger government always ends up spending more money; therefore, the larger city government produced by a merger will inevitably drive up tax rates.
There’s no empirical evidence to support the proposition that a merger will cost taxpayers more. To the contrary, the Charter Commission’s impact study forecasts $2.3 to $4.2 in budget savings per year, based primarily on recommendations for restructuring the cities’ combined workforce.

2. A merger will saddle each city with the other’s problems.
Though it’s true each city has problems the other doesn’t (or at least not to the same degree), each also has strengths the other lacks. A merger can achieve a synergy that leverages those strengths. For instance, Lewiston has a larger, more robust downtown than Auburn, while Auburn has more developable land. With a coordinated economic development effort, the benefits of both can be maximized. As for the problems, most should net out. For example, Lewiston’s need to reassess its property values (currently at about 80% compared to Auburn’s 101%) will be counterbalanced by a reduction in its mill rate to bring it in line with Auburn’s lower rate, thereby likely leaving Lewiston taxpayers with virtually the same bill.

3. A merger will obliterate the unique identity and traditions of each city.
Having lived in Auburn and worked in Lewiston for close to four decades, I’ll be darned if I can identify the uniqueness of each city’s identity and traditions. Each has a somewhat different historical background and ethnic composition, but years of intermingling and collaboration across the three bridges spanning the Androscoggin River have reduced these differences to insignificance. (And lest anyone worry, the study does not propose eliminating the traditional football or hockey rivalries between Lewiston and Edward Little High Schools).

4. The merger plan is the brainchild of a small group of elitists who are out of touch with the citizens of the Twin Cities.
The kindest thing I can say about this critique is that it’s populist rubbish. Members of the Charter Commission, such as Gene Geiger, Charles Morrison, Lucien Gosselin and Holly Lasagna, are respected local leaders whose long and successful business and professional careers have been marked by extensive community engagement. If “elitists” of this caliber are driving the bus, that’s probably a sign it’s headed in the right direction.

Last January, the Joint Charter Commission delivered its Consolidation Options & Impacts study on the proposed merger. The 82-page document is a thoughtful, measured and detailed document, one that critics should study carefully before they attack its conclusions. A copy is available for review on the Commission’s website.

I got a front-row seat to observe creation of a part of the study, when I accepted an invitation to serve on one of the four workgroups charged with formulating recommendations to the Commission. My assignment was to public works. While my prior experience in public works was limited to turning on faucets and flushing toilets, other members of the group were seasoned professionals, savvy about the technical and administrative aspects of its various operations.

Though handicapped by the peevish refusal of Auburn’s City Council to allow its municipal employees to participate, the group, with the aid of the study’s consultant, systematically and diligently gathered, reviewed and analyzed all relevant data. Their conclusions, in my view, were sound.

As it turned out, this workgroup, unlike the other three, concluded that few potential savings would be realized in a merger. In part this was due to the inflexible metrics of public works operations. In the words of the study, “The number of trees, miles of streets and quantity of water consumed and processed will not change if the cities merge.” In part, it was because years of staff cuts by both cities had already left the workforce threadbare with little leeway for further reductions.

Nonetheless, the group saw opportunities for improving functional effectiveness. For instance, each city’s public garage could specialize in certain operations (with one working on light trucks and cars, while the other concentrated on heavy trucks and equipment).

A vocal group of opponents has swung into action to defeat the November merger referendum. They’ve formed an advocacy organization, the Coalition to Oppose Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation (COLAC), though many of COLAC’s leaders had already staked out positions and road tested anti-merger messages long before the Charter Commissions’ study had been completed or COLAC itself organized.

The most useful thing COLAC could have done would be to retain its own professional consultant to prepare a separate impact study or, at a minimum, carefully analyze the Commission’s study. Instead, its website post, entitled “Impacts We Can Expect,” is little more than a 1-1/2 page list of talking points geared towards raising public anxiety about how taxpayers in both cities will suffer financial harm from a merger in order to defeat the measure in November’s referendum.

It’s symptomatic of the dark emotions stirred by the anti-merger messaging that a COLAC supporter recently posted a proposal on the group’s website suggesting a boycott of local businesses whose owners were supporting the merger.

If we have nothing to fear but fear itself, then all those concerned for the future well-being of Lewiston and Auburn should put fear aside and carefully consider and debate the pros and cons of merging our destinies before they vote next November.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context.

via Sun Journal, August 20, 2017

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