- The Decision
- Learning More
- Separation After Merger
- When Were You All In
- Why So Rare
- Efficiency Gains
- Council Representation
- Merging City Departments
- Job Losses
- Down This Road Before
- Up From The Grassroots
- Rival High Schools
- City Name
- Merging Only School Districts
- Special Education
- Training Students For Tomorrow’s Jobs
- High School Benefits
- Impact on Poverty
- Tax Savings Guarantees
- Paying Off Debt
- Differences In Assessed Valuation
- Savings Impact For Individual Tax Payers
- Storm Water Fee
Will this go to a vote? How much support on each side of the river does this need to be successful?
The consolidation issue will be decided by local voters this November. The initiative must be approved by a majority of voters in Auburn and a majority of voters in Lewiston.
I don't understand enough about the different perspectives. Will there be a debate so I can understand both arguments for the issues and opportunities?
This Spring Commission members will talk to interested groups anywhere, even small gatherings in homes. During fall and before the November 7 vote there will be forums and possibly debates. There will also be public hearings this Summer before each City Council.
If we merge, can we retract?
State law provides a means for separation, although like mergers such events are rare. One of the islands in Casco Bay separated from a Portland suburb.
When Gene Geiger became chair was he undecided? At what point did he commit to idea?
According to Gene Geiger, “In concept, I thought it made sense, especially as I considered the severe demographic and economic challenges our two small cities face in a no-growth, business unfriendly state. I became convinced and committed as I participated in the workgroup discussions last Summer and early Fall. I could see the dollar savings are real and significant.
I am certain we cannot reach our potential if we don’t come together and pull together. We might languish even if we are united, but I am certain of our fate if the two cities continue as rivals.”
Why haven't more cities combined?
There have been merging of cities and surrounding areas in other parts of the country, such as Indianapolis and Louisville, and the Province of Nova Scotia has made this a big push with Halifax being their big example. Having said that, many people, including those who complain about the way things are, don’t like change. For some, even a change of address is a big burden.
It has been a long process getting to this point, requiring a great deal of volunteer time and resources. Our six charter commissioners have been working on this as volunteers since June of 2014 – and more than that – the Charter Commission had to raise more than $160,000 to support their work.
Finally, it takes a lot of smart thinking and hard work after a merger to make sure the potential is realized. We think the long-term benefits will be worth it.
How are Lewiston and Auburn similar to and different from the two cities that combined into Princeton, NJ?
The person who led Princeton’s merger effort, Anton Lahnston, now resides in Maine and has been following the merger activities here. Here is how he responded to a Lewiston city councilor who asserted that the two efforts “could not be more different.”
I disagree. I think there are some aspects of the Princeton consolidation that are quite informative for Lewiston and Auburn and that the LA consolidation challenges are not a “far cry” from consolidation in the Princetons.
Like LA, redundancy, inefficiencies and related costs existed in the Princetons. Both the Princeton Borough and Township of Princeton had full time administrations, separate departments for police, public works, engineering, information technology/systems, as well as separate courts and different ordinances – just to name a few. At the same time however, the two municipalities in Princeton shared 13 services, including schools, recreation, and fire departments. And we found that even in the shared services in Princeton – like LA – there were competing agendas contributing significant costs and the loss of precious time by staff and elected officials as they attempted to provide the degree of service effectiveness residents expected.
Two other similarities are important. First, in Princeton there was a very strong and vocal organization opposed to consolidation called “Preserve our Historic Borough”. Their campaign was a very big factor in the work of the Princeton Consolidation Commission requiring many meetings and intense dialogues. Sometimes we agreed on changes, sometimes not, but in the end it led to a stronger consolidation. Second, both Princeton and Lewiston-Auburn have major institutions of higher education within their boundaries that deserve to be served by efficient and vital government.
The pathway to consolidation in Princeton was challenging. Not unlike Lewiston and Auburn the topic of consolidation was constant for more than 60 years and put to a vote for the fourth time in 2011. In Princeton we took many of the same steps as already engaged in LA, and ultimately voted to consolidate which has helped the two Princetons move to a brighter future.
Finally, among our many learnings during the years of work on Princeton’s consolidation we found that contentious and divergent points of view are necessary and helpful in making better informed decisions on consolidation.
How can we know that we will get efficiency gains? Can we adopt some measures to see that we are getting results from the merger.
This is a very good idea. We will recommend to the Transition Task Force that they adopt a few key metrics to help the citizens know how we are doing, perhaps in an annual report to the citizens.
Will there be the same number of Council representatives?
Ward populations will be roughly twice the current size, but 2 Councilors will represent each ward, much like 2 Senators represent each state. Councilor terms will be staggered so there will be continuity of knowledge and representation from one council to the next.
Will there be transition teams to assist with the departments combining? How does that work?
Workgroups will be established to consider how departments will be combined and how to transition. In the main, these will be current employees who know their work and will be given the opportunity to rethink and reengineer how that work is done. For many it will be an exciting opportunity to make a big impact on how their part of the city is run.
Will a lot of people lose their jobs?
Relatively few jobs will be affected. Given a 26-month transition period the Charter Commission anticipates that nearly all job reductions will take place by attrition with some people simply transferring to new jobs within the organization.
Have we tried to merge the cities before?
No, not since the 19th century has there been a move to merge the two cities fully. There have been, however, three study commissions in the last 30 years which recommended consolidating select municipal services. While the identified savings were more than $2 million, the city councils did not implement the recommendations of any of the commissions. Given that civic inaction, the Charter Commission is taking the concept one step further and taking it directly to the voters.
Has there been grassroots support in this initiative?
Opponents have been noisy about this issue, but they overlook the fact that 2500 citizens signed petitions to create the Charter Commission, and then the citizens of both cities elected three people to represent them on the Commission.
How will we maintain our identities if we don’t have the Blue Devils and the Red Eddies?
There will certainly be two high schools as there are today. The Blue Devils and Red Eddies will continue as athletic rivals, just as Portland and Deering High Schools in the City of Portland.
If Lewiston and Auburn merge, who decides our new name? What will it be?
The name of the consolidated community will be recommended by the Joint Charter Commission and sent to the voters of both cities for approval. The Commission is spending the first half of 2017 soliciting input from citizens. It will be grounded in our shared LA heritage, be forward looking, and will feel right.
Can we consolidate school districts if the merger fails?
Yes, but making things work well will be complicated. Today each school board presents its budget to its city council for approval, a process that can be contentious. A merged school district would have to present its operating budgets and capital requests to both cities. Given the political divide we have seen, one could envision one council saying yes and other saying no. Add to that the political tussling when deciding where to build a new school or what school needed renovating.
As a practical matter, it does not seem likely that if the voters decided against a merger they would agree to join school systems.
How will special education change?
Accommodating students who have special needs is a mandate, and that will continue. We did note that special education consumes a major portion – roughly 25% -- of the school budgets, and 25% of that amount is spent on tuition paid to send special need students to out of districts schools. These costs can amount to $50,000 per year more than educating those same student within the school system.
The issues are very complex and not easily solved, but it seems that the scale of a larger system would allow bringing in-district some of the 130+ students who current go out of district.
Having more students educated within the system would be better for them and would result in significant savings.
Are business owners working together and communicating with the high schools so the right kind of training for local jobs gets developed? There has been some discussion of a new LRTC satellite center. Would there be more programs developed to serve both communities?
Our Commission did not have the expertise to dig into curricula. At noted above, that is best left to professional educators, of whom the two cities have in abundance. Looking at a very high level, we did discuss the importance of aligning education offerings with the job needs of the future. LRTC is very highly regarded, and we recognized importance and opportunity to expand its offerings to include more Auburn-side students.
What is the benefit to high school students, parents, and taxpayers?
A consolidated school system would be the largest in the state, even larger than the Portland system. Given that larger scale, it would be able to offer a greater variety of offerings and cater better to individual student needs. For example, one high school might specialize in STEM offerings and the other the Humanities, with students taking advantage of what interests them most. The aim would be to better prepare students for post high school education and the jobs of the future.
The Commission has identified nearly $500,000 of administrative savings from reducing duplicative costs. At the same time it has made no recommendations regarding facilities, teaching, and curricula. That is best left to the professionals.
Downtown Lewiston has a 42% poverty rate and is the poorest square mile north of Boston. How will this affect our welfare system?
There are no easy solutions to eliminating poverty, and people in need need support. The overarching goal of merging LA is to have a first-rate education system that improves the skills our local talent and attracts talented newcomers who, in turn, will attract the companies that provide the job opportunities that will lift the entire community.
Can you guarantee that the taxpayers will see those savings?
There are no guarantees in life or in taxes. We are highly confident that there are at least $2.3 million of annual savings to be found if the cities merger. They have been identified them in great detail, department by department in the Commission Recommendations and Rationale report and the Consolidation Options and Impacts study both of which are posted on the Commission’s website.
Beyond those conservative numbers, we are confident there are additional savings to be found as departments are integrated and people look creatively how to do things better.
It will be up to the new city council, elected by the voters and guided by professional staff, to decide what to do with savings. They will be able to reduce taxes, reduce the growth of taxes, make capital investments, improve services, or any combination thereof.
There is one certainty. If there is no merger, annual savings between $2.3 and $4.2 million will not be realized. Therefore, taxes will rise at a faster rate and/or services will be reduced.
Will Auburn-side taxpayers have to pay off that higher Lewiston side debt?
No. Auburn side taxpayer will have rates set so that only Auburn’s current debt will be apportioned to them. Likewise, only Lewiston taxpayers will pay off Lewiston’s current debt. After merger, new debt will be equally shared. After all current debt is retired, taxpayers on both sides of the river will pay exactly the same rate.
How have differences in property valuations between Lewiston and Auburn been taken into account?
Lewiston’s tax rates are considerably higher than Auburn’s tax rates, but Lewiston’s property valuations are below market value and below Auburn’s property valuations, which are at close to market rates. Our report adjusts the valuations against state valuation levels so that they can be properly compared.
When that equalization is done, the actual tax rates are very close with the primary difference being the cost to service Lewiston debt being higher than Auburn. Because of that higher debt service, Lewiston-side taxpayers would pay a slightly higher rate than Auburn-side taxpayers -- $22.70 compared to $21.38 – until all current debt is retired.
The Commission projects a combined city could save between $2.3 and $4.2 million dollars per year (i.e. 2.5% to 4.4% of current tax levies) and between $23 and $42 million over a 10-year period. What does this mean to the individual taxpayer?
Those savings calculate to $1,900 for the median Lewiston property owner and $1,050 for the median Auburn property owner over that ten-year period. Those savings might be used to reduce taxes, reduce the growth of taxes, fund service improvements, or fund needed investments. Future city councils will decide what to do with any savings.
One thing is clear -- if there is no merger, there will no savings of this magnitude, and taxes will rise more rapidly or services will be reduced.
Currently, Lewiston residents pay a storm water fee. Auburn residents do not. The Commission’s report recommends that a merged city should adopt a storm water fee for everyone. Won’t this reduce the tax savings being projected for Auburn side residents?
The cost of dealing with water runoff exists, and those costs are either built into the basic water/sewage bill or broken out as a separate item. Among other things, a separate storm water fee enables a city to obtain revenue from property owners who place significant demands on the sewer systems, including those who do not pay property taxes at all (e.g. non-profits).
The costs to deliver water and processes sewerage and runoff will continue in a merged city. A choice will have to be made to bundle all the costs in one bill or have storm water as a separate charge and bill. Exactly, how costs will be allocated and collected would be up to a future city council.