LEWISTON, Maine — 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 of both cities 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 for an ongoing effort to design a new charter for a combined city.
LePage also agreed 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 told the mayors.
“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 also offered to come back to Lewiston and Auburn to meet with city councilors on both sides of the Androscoggin River to discuss the issue.
LePage later told reporters the process to merge Lewiston and Auburn should be one that is carefully vetted with public hearings and it should be based on facts and not political rhetoric.
While Macdonald said he fully supports creating a single government for Lewiston-Auburn, LaBonte, who also works for LePage as his director of policy management, is more skeptical.
“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.
Macdonald said he believes older residents of Lewiston-Auburn were more resistant to the idea of a single city government, while younger generations 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 stopped short of saying he too 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.
LaBonte said he believes the two 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, also needed to be looked at closely.
LaBonte also said he believed both cities could save costs for public education, especially in administration costs, by looking at a combined school system as well.
Auburn has 50 percent more land and 50 percent fewer people than Lewiston, LaBonte said. He said the two cities shared a similar property tax rate but Auburn had a greater property valuation and residents there paid 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.
“Personally, I’ve long had a concern that some of the joint ventures that Lewiston-Auburn have embarked upon are not a model of efficiency and some of the political elite here in town have kind of kept those sacred cows off the table in the merger,” LaBonte said. “I think we want to put those sacred cows on the table.”
LePage reiterated past assertions that Lewiston and Auburn don’t each need their own fire chief, police chief and public works director. He also keyed on a point LaBonte made regarding the various quasi-municipal agencies that deal with 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 needs to 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.