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Mayor’s Corner: It is high time for a dust storm to hit Lewiston-Auburn

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Lewiston

That’s right! It is high time for a storm to blow off all the accumulated dust on the many reports dealing with consolidation of Lewiston-Auburn municipal services.

Back in 1996 we had the report of a joint commission of the cities of Lewiston-Auburn, more commonly known as the L-A Together Report. Back in the early 2000s, we had the LA Excels Report. Then in 2004, Mayor Lionel Guay of Lewiston and his brother Mayor Normand Guay of Auburn created the Lewiston-Auburn Commission on Joint Services. This was followed by the Citizens’ Commission on Lewiston and Auburn Cooperation.

These reports involved an abundant number of hours that can be measured accumulatively in the thousands by dedicated citizens of both cities, all with the goal of seeing the fruits of their labor. All were basically “dead on arrival” when presented to the city councils.

The councils lacked the foresight that our economic situation in this country and in our state and municipalities would dictate that it is necessary to work together to consolidate the services we provide for the benefit of those who work hard to pay taxes to receive these necessary services. They also lacked the intestinal fortitude and political will to make the recommendations in these reports become a reality.

It is my firm opinion that until and unless city councilors are involved in the initial process of moving these initiatives forward, continued efforts will meet the same fate.

Auburn Mayor John Jenkins and I both tried to advance a Joint Downtown Planning Advisory Committee, when meetings were to begin early in 2008. That also died with city councils choosing to go it alone.

I speak from experience, having served on the L-A Together Commission and the Lewiston-Auburn Commission on Joint Services and having participating in the L-A Excels effort, as well as offering input and supporting the Citizens’ Commission on Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation.

The Lewiston-Auburn Commission on Joint Services, headed by Robert Clifford of Lewiston and Donna Steckino of Auburn, presented its report to both city councils in February 2006. A Sun-Journal article dated February 13, 2006 was headlined “Report calls for combined police, public works by 2011.” These were the last in the group of services to be consolidated. Those that could be consolidated more quickly were to happen before.

Guess what folks? The Citizens’ Commission on Lewiston and Auburn Cooperation, headed by Peter Garcia of Auburn and Bette Swett-Thibeault, which followed to develop plans for the implementation of consolidated services, was able to determine that consolidation of services for both cities could jointly save $2.7 million a year. This was tested and verified.

So, here we are in 2011. Had the Lewiston-Auburn Commission’s report been implemented, we could be saving $2.7 million. Could your property tax bill use these savings and with improved services?

Since 2006, we have had to eliminate positions and terminate employees while concomitantly raising local property taxes. Add to that the state reducing its funding for education and revenue sharing amounting to millions. When will we come to the realization that we must work smarter and consolidate services?

We see businesses combining every day. In a state that is highly Catholic, we see the church closing many of its doors in order to consolidate, not only because of the lack of vocations and attendance, but also because of the economic times were are in. In order to survive, it has no choice.

Those of us who are Catholic, still see our religious needs met in a different way than we have been used to. But they are still being met.

Why can’t cities do the same as businesses and churches? If it works there, why can’t it work in municipalities? I would sincerely hope that the resistance is not because some feel they would lose the power of office! I would imagine that to some, that may be it. To others, it may simply be parochialism.

In this day and age, we must be more progressive and move forward towards our future or we will live to regret it. I believe many are starting to realize the opportunities we have let pass us by.

Let us look at what is working in Lewiston-Auburn. Here is a listing of joint boards and commissions where both cities are represented by dedicated citizens working together for the common good: L/A Arts; L-A Economic Growth Council; Cable TV Advisory Board; L & A Transit Committee; L-A Watershed Protection Commission, L-A Water Pollution Control Authority; 9-11 Committee; Auburn-Lewiston Airport Committee; and Community Forestry Board. If this can all work for the benefit of both cities, why can’t consolidation of services work?

As I complete five years of service as Lewiston’s mayor, having run on a consolidation plank of my platform, I am disappointed and frustrated that during these years I was unable to convince the city councils, which had the power to make consolidation happen. Today, we are starting to pay the price of losing $2.7 million in savings annually. It is a true shame!

So, how do we make consolidation happen? Well, it will take a dust storm to clear off these reports by electing mayors and city councilors who will run on a platform of consolidation and actually live up to their promise once elected.

In the last few years, when we had debates for political office, they have only been for mayoral runs. Well, mayors have little power; they only vote to break ties. Candidates for city council seats have been virtually left untouched.

I am proposing today that there be debates for city council seats. A primary question should ask if they fully support consolidation of city services between Lewiston and Auburn: yes or no? Those who answer yes are those who deserve election. Once elected, we must hold their feet to the fire. Mayoral candidates must also be held to the same standard should they be called to break a tie.

A man of vision is Mr. Jim Wellehan. He has lived in both Lewiston and Auburn. He now claims to live in Great Falls, Maine, as he rightfully believes in one community of Lewiston and Auburn. The sooner we realize this and make it become reality, the better off we all will be. Remember, $2.7 million in annual savings is no chump change!

Also remember, it is city councilors who can make or break consolidation of services. As Donna Steckino said back in 2006: “We don’t want this to just be put into a drawer and forgotten for another 10 years.” Therefore, it is high time for a dust storm to blow away the dust that has gathered on these reports and make consolidation of city services become a reality. We can and should do it at the ballot box.

See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.

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