By Robert E. Macdonald
Mayor of Lewiston
Early in February, the Sun Journal headline described a “Lewiston, Auburn Mayoral Spat.” That spat resulted from my reaction to comments by Mayor Jonathan LaBonté of Auburn during a meeting with Governor LePage. At that meeting and elsewhere, Mayor LaBonté stated that the Twin Cities have been sitting on a plan that would save $2.7 million a year through closer cooperation, a plan that hasn’t been implemented because of politics and lack of a “fiscal cliff” forcing us to do so.
My concern then and now is that such statements play right into the hands of those who would like to see local government pick up the tab for the state budget through the elimination of municipal revenue sharing and other state supported programs.
Guess what? I was right.
In advance of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee going on the road to Brewer to hear from the public about the state budget, an action alert was sent to Republican legislators urging them to turn out supporters of the Governor’s proposals. Mayor LaBonte’s comments were prominently featured. They’ve become a rallying cry for those who want to gut local government services or force us, rather than the state, to raise taxes.
In effect, Mayor LaBonté’s comments have become part of the justification for extreme cuts to local government—kind of a “See, they could make do with no problem if they only wanted to” justification.
His comments also ignore the hard work, effort and efficiencies that the two communities have cooperatively achieved over decades. Several years ago, the cities put together a simple list of cooperative ventures that ran to almost six pages. These include joint public safety dispatching, airport operations, cooperative economic development efforts and protocols, tax sharing agreements on the Monty Hydro and Airport Business Park, jointly purchased code enforcement/business licensing software, and much, much more.
No other communities in Maine can match what we’ve done, and it shows in our cost structure. Lewiston has the lowest per capita expenditures of Maine’s 10 largest cities, in part as a result of savings from our joint work with Auburn.
Could more be done? Yes. But the commission on joint services report’s estimated savings of $2.7 million was to be achieved over five years, not immediately; even if completely realized next year, that level of savings would replace only 40% of the $6.5 million Lewiston and Auburn are slated to lose with just the suspension of revenue sharing.
In addition, some of those savings have already been booked since Lewiston has reduced its staff by over 20 positions since the 2009 report was released. Auburn has also made cuts.
For example, the report calls for a consolidated assessing department that would have a staff of 10. Right now, actual combined L-A staffing is nine, including one vacant and frozen position. The commission booked savings of $140,000—savings that are no longer there given staffing reductions over the years.
Let’s take another example. The report calls for combining the two police departments at a savings of $400,000, primarily from eliminating a chief, deputy chief and other supervisory positions. This could be worth pursuing.
The problem is, how? There are only three alternatives: create one combined force reporting to a separate board, similar to such other entities as the airport, LA-911 and the Lewiston/Auburn Water Pollution Control Authority. But Mayor LaBonté has been highly critical of such independent agencies, arguing that they effectively fall outside of political control and accountability.
A second option is for one city to contract with the other for police services. While this could work, it still raises questions of how the contracting organization can effectively oversee the police services provided to its community. If Auburn contracted with Lewiston, what would the Auburn manager and mayor do when a citizen calls complaining about a rude cop? Would they, or their counterparts in Lewiston, if Auburn provided the service, simply shrug their shoulders and say call the L-A chief?
But there is a way. The two cities could simply be combined. Maybe it’s time for us to put together a Charter Commission to develop and propose a single municipal organization—one with an elected governing body and professional administration. One where the police and other departments would be accountable to a professional manager overseen by elected officials. One where the savings that could be realized, would be realized.
Rather than claiming we’re ignoring $2.7 million in savings, maybe it’s time to actually do something, propose it to the public, and see if they will support it.
To date, Mayor LaBonté has been actively promoting a full range of ideas. But not all of them come with an outline of how they would be pursued, funded and administered—let alone how both cities would go about approving them. Great ideas are just that—ideas—and can’t be implemented without working through the details, problems and obstacles.
The numerous joint services reports have repeatedly made the same point: cooperation and, dare I say, consolidation, requires a commitment on the part of our elected officials. Talk is cheap, but actions speak louder than words. It’s time for action.
The Lewiston City Council and I are prepared to work together with Mayor LaBonté and our counterparts in Auburn. But it’s time to put detailed proposals on the table. Bold claims make for good headlines; they don’t always make for good policy or outcomes.