Cities on the cusp of history

On Nov. 7, two Maine cities will have a chance to do something historic. On the ballot in Auburn and Lewiston will be a proposed municipal merger, the product of nearly three years of work by a joint charter commission.

If approved, the combined city of Lewiston-Auburn would rival Portland as Maine’s largest, with nearly 60,000 people. It would be a rarity in state history, which much more often sees towns dividing rather than coming together.

Some of the divisions were planned; when Maine’s townships were first laid out, they were often separated into north and south parishes, to allow for easy separation as growth occurred. That’s why Augusta and Hallowell were originally one town, and there were other, seemingly unlikely pairings, such as Dresden and Alna.

But in modern times, there was usually a dispute over taxes or infrastructure that split communities. Boothbay Harbor reputedly separated from Boothbay because of a dispute over constructing a town water system. Ogunquit, effectively the downtown section of Wells, formed first a village corporation, then a separate town in 1980.

Things got out of hand in the 1980s, as some people decided the prospect of lower property taxes, however fleeting, justified secession, and often convinced legislators to back them. Long Island divided from Portland in 1992, setting off a wave of attempted withdrawals by wealthier sections of coastal communities, including Peaks Island and Biddeford Pool.


Perhaps the most egregious secession was when the summer colony of Frye Island in Sebago Lake, whose cottagers didn’t like paying school taxes through Standish, won permission to separate. This town now has a year-round population of five residents.

In each case, overall costs — particularly to the municipality left behind — went up, as Maine’s already small and dispersed units of local government grew still smaller. In all of Maine history, there’s just one example of two towns formally merging: Dover and Foxcroft in 1922, which, as in the Lewiston-Auburn plan, now share a hyphenated name.

As proponents point out, Lewiston and Auburn have long formed one economic unit. Auburn is the Androscoggin County seat; Lewiston built the huge mills that once dominated the skyline and employed thousands of immigrants, mostly Francos from Quebec. Things have changed, but not the business, family and cultural connections.

Opponents are reduced to claiming a merger would violate “tradition,” and have half-heartedly claimed it would increase, rather than lower costs.

In fact, methodical surveys show there would be millions of dollars in savings by combining forces, numbers similar to those produced by a previous commission in 2004. It only stands to reason: Having one city manager rather than two, one fire chief, police chief and economic development director, will cost less.

But predicted savings aren’t the only reason to merge; successful partnerships elsewhere have ultimately exceeded initial estimates, as well as promoting faster growth. Municipalities, like businesses, have economies of scale. When there’s already substantial sharing, as in Lewiston and Auburn, formalizing ties is easier.


Until recently, the chances for approval seemed slight. Auburn, the smaller partner, long resisted even studying a merger, and wouldn’t allow a vote on the 2004 plan. This time, both cities agreed the question would be on both ballots, with exactly the same wording, to avoid any legal challenge.

Recent Auburn Mayor Jonathan Labonte has been a persistent critic, though his day job on Gov. Paul LePage’s staff put him in a pickle; LePage supports just the kind of consolidation proposed here. Labonte could never convincingly explain why his own city should be an exception to the benefits he promoted for LePage; he resolved the conflict by stepping down as mayor.

In Lewiston, Ben Chin, who won a plurality for mayor in 2015, but lost a runoff to incumbent Robert MacDonald, is trying again. Both candidates, and several others, support the merger.

The early betting was that Lewiston would approve, but Auburn would reject. Now, that calculation may have changed, because opposition has lessened and a merger makes so much sense.

Maine’s local governments, a former state planning director once said, are “frugal, but inefficient.” They watch their pennies, but because there are so many of them, our collective tax payments are higher than in most states.

Auburn and Lewiston coming together could change that dynamic. There are strengths in union that could prove compelling, even to the most traditional of Mainers.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His biography, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]

(Editor’s note: An early version of this column misidentified Adam D. Lee, a prominent auto dealer, as a candidate for mayor of Auburn. It is actually Adam R. Lee, an Auburn city councilor, who is running for mayor.)


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