2016-02-25 / Front Page

Officials: River won’t divide’ mutual interests

By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/SACO — The Biddeford-Saco Cooperation Steering Committee held its first meeting last week to institutionalize a practice of meeting together and identifying collaborative efforts.

The committee consists of the mayors and two city councilors from each city, with Biddeford City Manager James Bennett and Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland included. The meetings will occur quarterly, with each city alternating as host. The host mayor is chairman of the meeting with the host city providing staff support.

According to the cities’ institutional cooperation policy, the two city councils will meet twice a year, in January and September, and Bennett and Sutherland shall report on cooperative efforts between the cities to their respective city councils during their annual budget reports.

Among the topics on the agenda for the steering committee were the development of joint economic development protocols and tax increment finance policies. Samples of each from Lewiston-Auburn were included in the committee’s packet.

Saco Mayor Roland Michaud said combining economic development efforts “has potential but has to be done carefully.”

“TIFs are a big financial tool communities use,” Michaud said. “(Aligning TIF policies) eliminates the possibility of one community being played against another … It seems like not a big deal, but it’s an enormous deal. By joining together, you’ll not have communities played against each other … If both of the communities are working together, they many times hire a third-party entity, a standalone entity paid for by the cities.”

Michaud cited the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Transit Committee, or Shuttlebus-Zoom, as a successful service provided by a third-party entity but paid for by three municipalities.

“When you have multiple political entities providing services without having that third party, it becomes much more complex,” Michaud said.

In a joint economic development protocol approved by the city councils of Auburn and Lewiston in 1998, the Lewiston/Auburn Economic Growth Council is designated to coordinate economic development inquiries to either city, and the cities are requested to forward inquiries to their cities to the growth council. The council then prepares a list of sites in both cities that meet the prospect’s prerequisite needs.

Lewiston and Auburn also agreed upon guidelines for instituting tax increment finance districts in 1999, which outline minimum investments or jobs that are required to be created by developers seeking to benefit from a TIF credit enhancement. If either city deviates from the TIF policy, then the city agrees to work within the economic development protocol and work collaboratively with the other city on the presentation of the TIF. Biddeford Economic and Community Development Director Daniel Stevenson said Biddeford does not have a policy on TIFs and looks at them on a case-by-case basis.

“We look at a total funding package, what we call the capital stack, and then we look at the tax shelter for the city and it runs through a process, there’s hearings and it goes before the city council,” Stevenson said.

Michaud said a joint economic development proposal between the two cities, like the one Lewiston and Auburn has, is a possibility in the future.

“I can see it working down the road, but we need to take the time and do the analysis,” Michaud said.

Stevenson said economic development in either city is good for both cities.

“Economic growth on either side, or both sides of the river, is good for both communities,” Stevenson said. “It’s good because the jobs are in the communities … It drives payroll and the economy for both cities regardless of what side of the river it happens on.”

Saco Economic Development Director William Mann said it’s in Saco’s interest to find a place in the region for an inquiring business, even if Saco doesn’t have a suitable property.

“If they come to me, we’re going to try and place them here, but if we can’t place them here, we’re going to have a conversation with Daniel in Biddeford, or Scarborough or Old Orchard Beach and say, ‘How can we get them to the area?’” Mann said. “The last thing we want to do is ever get into a bidding war with any of our neighboring communities. It’s a zero sum policy.

“What is in the interest of the citizens and taxpayers and families that reside here in terms of job opportunities? It’s not a question of Biddeford or Saco. It’s more of a question of losing (businesses) to North Carolina or Timbuktu. The last thing anyone wants to have said is that they fought against themselves and lost everything. It’s working really quite well here (between Biddeford and Saco).”

Mann, who worked for the Lewiston/ Auburn Economic Growth Council more than 20 years ago, said that model may not be the exact model for Biddeford and Saco because Biddeford and Saco rarely compete against each other for the same businesses or development projects.

Michaud said the two cities have taken turns being in the economic development spotlight in recent years, and the new development projects in Biddeford are good for Saco, too.

“I’ve seen both sides of that,” Michaud said. “Sometimes Saco is the greenest city in Maine and everything is thriving. Right now, because of Biddeford’s efforts and developers’ efforts, such as Doug Sanford and other developers, Biddeford is doing great. I’m happy for them.

“We realize that working together, we both gain … A few years ago, we redesigned our entire Main Street and Saco Island began to really change … Biddeford is doing well and we’re happy for them. Saco is doing well, too.”

Michaud said that the two cities already cooperate with some services such as the fire departments, which send a truck to each other’s city on most calls. The police departments also work together “seamlessly,” he added. Merging the police or fire departments completely, however, would be a challenge, Michaud said, because of differences in policy and personnel management between the chiefs of the cities.

Mann said he and Stevenson sometimes affectionately refer to the other’s city as being “South Saco” or “North Biddeford.”

“We’re really one community joined by the river. If it wasn’t for the river, neither of us would be standing here and having this conversation,” Mann said. “It really is the Saco River that joins us together as one community.”

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