Voters in Lewiston and Auburn might have another question to answer on the ballot this November in addition to a long list of state referendums. This one will ask them whether it’s time for Maine’s Twin Cities to unite.

But with a possible vote looming, opponents in April launched a campaign to preserve Lewiston and Auburn’s separate governments. Residents on both sides of the Androscoggin River fear losing their municipal identities if the merger attempt succeeds at the ballot box.

Proponents argue a merger will make local government more efficient while providing a similar level of service at a lower cost. One police department would be cheaper than two, the argument goes. Same for other municipal departments, such as public works. And proponents argue that a combined population would give the Twin Cities more political clout at the state and federal levels.

If the Lewiston-Auburn effort succeeds, it will be the first time two Maine cities have merged in almost a century. But merger proponents will have to contend with residents’ fear that any gains in government efficiency and economic development will come at the cost of their deep-seated identification with their hometowns.

‘An existential threat’

On Monday, the Auburn City Council voted 4-3 to pass a resolve barring city staff from working on the clock with the joint charter commission, the panel that’s investigating the benefits and drawbacks of a merger.

It’s unlikely, though, to interrupt the commission’s work, the bulk of which is complete, according to Chip Morrison, a former Auburn city manager and member of the commission. An early version of the joint charter was released in January, and New York-based consultant CGR is due anytime to hand over an analysis of the potential cost savings and efficiencies that could come from a merged city.

The charter commission is working to finish the draft charter as well as an analysis of how a merger will affect the two cities before submitting it to voters in Lewiston and Auburn for approval, which could happen as early as this November, Morrison said.

But residents in both cities aren’t comforted by promises of cost savings and efficiencies. Each city has a distinct background, history and culture that residents fear they will lose if the Twin Cities merge.

“We’re talking about 200 years of history. People love living in Auburn, and they love living in Lewiston,” James Howaniec, a former Lewiston mayor and chair of the anti-merger committee, said. “People really identify with their respective cities.”

What it means to be a resident of either Lewiston or Auburn isn’t the same for everyone. Leroy Walker, an Auburn city councilor and member of the anti-merger committee, said a merger would mean turning his back on 150 years of history of Auburn residents building a great city.

Walker pointed to Auburn’s winning of the 1967 All-American City designation, which is awarded annually to 10 cities that bring together community members to tackle pressing local issues, as part of the heritage he and other residents risk losing if the merger goes forward.

“We have a great city and we need to be proud of it. We were the All-American City way before the city across the bridge was,” he said. “We did that as the city of Auburn, not as two cities joined at the hip.”

Another challenge for merger proponents is that some Auburn residents fear that the union will amount to Lewiston taking over Auburn.

“A lot of us in the city of Auburn feel that we’ll get swallowed up in the whole mix,” Walker said.

The root of that concern is numbers. Lewiston has a population of 36,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, making it the second largest city in the state. Auburn, on the other hand, has only 23,000 residents. With a joint governing body, Walker said, Lewiston’s larger population would tip the scale in its favor when residents debate which direction the larger city should take.

“This is really an existential threat to the cities,” Howaniec said.

Whether the cities merge could very well hinge on how the merger’s proponents address concerns about loss of identity and autonomy. Pro-merger campaigns that focus on the promise of greater efficiency in city services or cost savings from eliminating duplicate services are unlikely to sway voters who are skeptical of the potential savings, according to a 2006 study by Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier, professors of public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Northern Illinois University respectively.

A merger campaign has a better chance of garnering support if supporters can convince voters that a larger city will attract economic development and that the existing political structure is unable to achieve a desired vision, according to Leland and Thurmaier. But voters can be easily mobilized against a merger if they believe it will cost them political representation and civic identity.

Long odds

Very few cities contemplating a merger ever make it through the process of drafting a charter. Only 15 percent of those mergers that make it to referendum garner support from voters, according to Leland and Thurmaier.

Lewiston and Auburn have a long history of failed mergers that dates back to 1869, when Auburn residents voted 299-283 against a referendum to join Lewiston. Just in the last 20 years, three other citizen commissions — in 1996, 2006 and 2009 — created a roadmap for how city officials could merge Lewiston and Auburn, along with the benefits of doing so, but the merger proposals never went to voters.

In each case, there was little political will to go down that road.

Will this effort to merge the cities have a different outcome? There hasn’t been any polling in more than 20 years to gauge whether residents support a merger. According to a 1995 poll commissioned by a citizen commission, 40 percent of respondents favored greater cooperation between the cities, but only about 16 percent thought they should merge.

“I’ve talked with people on both sides of the river, and I’ve not seen any broad grass-roots support for this effort,” Howaniec said.

Model of cooperation

Although residents haven’t been in a hurry to merge their cities, the Twin Cities have found many areas for collaboration. For Morrison of the joint charter commission, this means it’s time to stop nibbling around the edges and take the step toward a complete merger.

“What were very different communities 50 years ago aren’t anymore,” he said. “Some people don’t even see the lines anymore.”

The list of Lewiston and Auburn’s joint ventures is long.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the cities worked together to clean up the watershed around Lake Auburn after years of pollution from the old mills. This led to the creation of a shared wastewater treatment plant that both cities still use.

When it comes to economic development, the cities created an industrial park outside the municipal airport, which Auburn and Lewiston have shared since before World War II.

In the 1980s, the cities merged their economic development arms to create the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, which provides financing and other support to businesses that are putting down roots in the Twin Cities.

Lewiston and Auburn even share a 911 communication center and public transit system.

With this history of collaboration, Howaniec said that merger opponents don’t see any need to give up their respective identities to work together. Rather, the cities should find other areas for collaboration while retaining the authority to make decisions in the interest of their respective populations, Howaniec said.

“In a lot of ways, it’s been a model of municipal cooperation,” Howaniec said. “But I don’t think the two cities need to merge for that to continue.”