"I would be so pleased to see Lewiston and Auburn become one... No is not an option." - Governor LePage
LEWISTON — Maine Gov. Paul LePage made a full-on sales pitch for consolidating Lewiston and Auburn into one city during a lunchtime meeting with the mayors Wednesday.
LePage met with Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald during a visit to downtown Lewiston's iconic hot dog stand, Simones'.
"Man, I would be so pleased to see Lewiston and Auburn become one," LePage told LaBonte and Macdonald as he encouraged them to go to their respective city councils and offer support to an ongoing effort to design a new charter for a combined city.
LePage said both city councils should have some representation in that process and suggested the current six-member charter commission should be expanded to at least 12 people.
"No is not an option," LePage said. "You know you can get to yes, every single time."
"I think these two cities would be the strongest city in Maine," LePage said. "They would be the next economic engine; they would be the next Portland and you would see 150,000 people around this city in five years."
LePage offered to come back and meet with city councilors on both sides of the Androscoggin River to discuss the issue.
He later told reporters the process of merging Lewiston and Auburn should be carefully vetted with public hearings and should be based on facts and not political rhetoric.
While Macdonald said he fully supports creating a single government for Lewiston-Auburn, LaBonte, who works for LePage as his director of policy management at the State House, was more skeptical.
"I really believe that (consolidation) would really help this community, if we could come together," Macdonald said. "I think we would really prosper. We would become a political powerhouse up there (in Augusta), maybe even replacing Portland. That's why I'm 100 percent for it."
Macdonald said he believes older residents of Lewiston-Auburn were more resistant to the idea of a single city government, while younger people were more receptive to the idea.
LaBonte voiced his reservations to LePage during a nearly 40-minute discussion among the three men as they sat huddled at a dining table in the tight quarters of the small restaurant.
"I appreciate the governor's interest," LaBonte said. "The governor is reform-minded; he believes that having as many municipalities as we do is inefficient."
LaBonte said he supported the notion that the two cities should have a full and fair vetting of the prospects of a merger, but he stopped short of saying he was on the one-city bandwagon.
"What is it going to take to ensure that the right numbers are put on the table and the public has a chance to see all the facts?" LaBonte asked. "I"m all for that. I think an important part of this process is getting facts on the table."
LaBonte said he believes the cities could find substantial savings for taxpayers with a merger but that certain entities, some of which are funded by both Lewiston and Auburn but are outside the jurisdiction of either, must be looked at closely.
Calling these entities "sacred cows," he said they too, should be placed on the merger table. He said he believed both cities could save costs for public education, especially in administration costs, by looking at a combined school system.
For his part, LePage said Lewiston and Auburn didn't each need its own fire chief, police chief and public works director. He keyed in on a point LaBonte made about the various quasi-municipal agencies that oversee drinking water and sewers in both cities.
"By consolidating here, I see a whole lot of things that could happen," LePage said. He said for Maine to be prosperous, it must find a way to become more efficient at all levels of government, including at the municipal level and that Lewiston and Auburn were on the cusp of an opportunity that could demonstrate that.
Both Macdonald and LaBonte said they did not know what the governor wanted to meet with them about beforehand.
Auburn has 50 percent more land and 50 percent fewer people than Lewiston, LaBonte said. He said the two cities share a similar property tax rate but Auburn had a greater property valuation and people there pay lower sewer and water rates than their neighbors in Lewiston. LaBonte said he wanted to be sure all areas were looked at carefully if the cities were to merge.
Charter Commission Chairman Gene Geiger said he knew the governor was a supporter of the Lewiston-Auburn Charter Commission's work, but he was surprised by how deep that support seemed to run.
"What I found particularly interesting was how much he knows and believes in the potential value of putting two organizations like this together," Geiger said, after watching the online videos. "I did not expect it. It certainly was encouraging to hear the governor talk about it."
Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, said prior to the meeting that LePage wanted to congratulate both men on their recent re-elections. LaBonte was re-elected in November. Macdonald won a runoff election in December.
This article by Scott Thistle originally appeared in the Sun Journal on in 2016.