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Thoughts from the Mayor: New committee should extract information from joint agencies

By Jonathan P. LaBonté

Mayor of Auburn

The Joint Agency Budget Review Committee, created by myself and Mayor Macdonald of Lewiston, includes two city councilors from each city that meet to review the budget requests from the organizations that are funded by both cities, such as Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council, L/A Arts, Great Falls TV and others.

Elected officials from both cities, as well as members of the public, were invited to attend these meetings held over the last week.

There are number of key points that need to be raised as the cities assess the performance of these agencies, some of which that have existed with little to no reform for decades. The committee should collect the “governance” documents that create the joint committee or service and references whether the cities have an obligation to fund. Some of these efforts lack such a document, such as LA Arts, and others have never had a formal city committee—it has just been past practice to provide funding.

L/A Arts. Arts and cultural activities have been central to the resurgence of Lewiston-Auburn and will be critical to economic growth in our downtown area. However, there are now more than a dozen different organization supporting the arts and providing programming.

The cities have been told for years that L/A Arts is the designated arts agency for Lewiston-Auburn. Yet, upon my request, they were unable to provide documentation for that. We should encourage L/A Arts to produce such documentation or to stop making reference to such.

In fact, the lack of city council involvement prompted me to request, in writing, that each city be afforded a seat on their board of directors, as we do with all other joint agencies. Unfortunately, the board of LA Arts chose to decline my request, stating that they wished to set their direction first, before allowing elected officials to serve.

The work that L/A Arts provides today is not dissimilar to other arts groups in L-A. I question whether we need to continue to subsidize one non-profit arts organizations when groups like Community Little Theatre, the Franco American Heritage Center, the Art Walk, the LA Film Festival and the new galleries have all been funded by non-profits and private fundraising. And while staff at L/A Arts bill their role in the creative economy, nearly all of their current programming is tailored to school-based and after-school youth efforts.

The $40,000 joint investment of Lewiston and Auburn could be put to better use than this, perhaps creating seed money for a joint events box office and enticing all local arts groups to work together to leverage a city investment.

Great Falls TV. Despite reference to create a joint cable advisory committee with the City of Lewiston, staff have yet to find any documents creating the governance for this group; how and why franchise fees are set aside; or how we determine the percentage of fees for Auburn that get put to this service.

While the budget proposed by Great Falls TV includes funding from Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon on a per capita basis, Lisbon is barely registering on the radar screen. Why is that? The taxpayers of Lewiston and Auburn should have some explanation for this.

Having local access channels is great for our community, but we should be determining what we wish to see out of a jointly funded cable/broadcast channel and then allocate funding based on those shared goals.

Transit. Ridership numbers are up two straight years at a rate of nearly 20 percent, but farebox payments are not mirroring these increases. Where is the disconnect in this data? There are some policy implications at play beyond the request for property taxes that we should understand.

Also, we should be looking to major public/private institutions to support our system, as that approach has helped strengthen the Bangor area transit system and reducing property tax demands. For example, UMaine in Orono charges a transportation fee, and that money goes to the Bangor transit system for students to ride free with a student ID. Stable institutional customers like Bates College, USM, Kaplan or the Community College, if cultivated, could grow our system not on the back of taxpayers.

LA 911. We split the costs 50/50 with Lewiston, even though they generate two-thirds of the calls. While that is a concern, the bigger issue is that Lewiston and Auburn keep subsidizing the small towns in Androscoggin County that use the county system. Our cities fund over 50 percent of the county dispatch budget and don’t use this service. The cities must end that practice in this fiscal year to bring savings to both cities.

LAEGC. As a board member, I asked the head of Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council to propose a work plan for the budget; for example, what will you do with your staff time if we give you property tax money? Instead, we got a laundry list of local businesses and a blurring of what LAEGC might have done to help those businesses.

It is not fruitful for us to criticize which businesses locate in which city: we all benefit when a business locates in Lewiston-Auburn. However, LAEGC has been adding new projects and services, which means they had free time on their hands (all of the logistics at ribbon cuttings, which they never did before; the Launch LA program they came up with after the budget was approved, etc.).

We should be asking where LAEGC will divide their time for the 5.5 staff people they have. We should be buying a targeted service, not a warm feeling of how Lewiston-Auburn cooperates on economic development. We need to know exactly what we are being asked to pay for.

We could spend lots of time poking holes in LAEGC data, which clearly is presented to make a positive impression on us. Instead, we should be pushing for a joint economic development plan to grow Lewiston-Auburn, then fund a group to report annually on the plan’s progress. That is not what happens now.

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