BANGOR, Maine — Among the many Maine projects approved for federal stimulus funding this year, about $53 million has been set aside for renovations to the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building on Harlow Street.
Although the work is not expected to begin until early 2010, some observers already are wondering aloud why such a high dollar figure is needed for renovations.
“Our roads are crumbling all around, and we’re painting a federal building. It doesn’t make sense,” said Thomas Davis, chairman of the Penobscot County commissioners. “I can think of a bunch of things that are more deserving of this kind of money. As a taxpayer, I’m sick of money being thrown away. I don’t mind spending, but this is overboard.”
Davis is not alone in his concern. The federal building renovation project was discussed at length during a recent joint meeting of Penobscot County commissioners and Bangor city councilors, and most agreed that the cost seemed unusually high.
To put it in perspective, the brand new Penobscot County Courthouse, although slightly smaller in size than the federal building, recently was constructed for about $38 million. Estimates for a new Bangor auditorium and civic center have ranged from $40 million to $60 million.
To be fair, the federal building renovations do include more than painting, but there have not been many details released about exactly how that $53 million will be spent. Paula Santangelo, a regional spokeswoman for the General Services Administration — the federal agency that oversees design, construction, operation and maintenance of federal facilities throughout the country — provided only a general list of updates. They include: new heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient windows, new elevators, updated electrical systems, security improvements and numerous other renovations.
Santangelo declined, however, to offer a cost breakdown for the project because she said it would compromise the bidding process for the work.
Representatives for U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins promised that the project will be closely watched.
“This funding will not only help put Mainers back to work in the Bangor community, but also provide necessary repairs, renovations, and security enhancements,” said Snowe spokesman John Gentzel. “At the same time, as the federal government continues to award funding for critical projects throughout the nation, Senator Snowe believes there must be transparency and accountability within the process to ensure these investments do not go to waste.”
Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins, said his boss has already chaired four oversight hearings on the use of stimulus funding to help prevent fraud, waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars. Asked specifically about the Bangor project, though, Kelley was reluctant to criticize.
“These changes will help extend the life of this public building and result in significantly lower energy costs to taxpayers in the future,” he said. “This renovation project is ready to go and will not only create and save good-paying construction jobs but also provide a much-needed boost to the Bangor-area economy.”
Collins already has local offices in the Margaret Chase Smith building, and Snowe’s Bangor offices are in the process of being moved there.
The Bangor federal building, which has a total of 165,897 square feet, was built in 1966 for about $4.5 million. It houses employees from 15 federal agencies, including U.S. District Court, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the Social Security Administration and the FBI. The building also houses the U.S. post office, although that will move to an undecided location within the next year.
The federal building has not seen major renovations during its lifetime, which is one of the reasons it was chosen for stimulus funding, according to Santangelo. She said that estimated costs for demolishing the current structure and building from scratch would be about $76 million. Therefore, renovating saves $23 million.
“Modernization projects preserve our existing federal legacy and are more sustainable than demolishing and replacing,” Santangelo said.
Just four years ago, the Bangor federal building was approved for $17.8 million in renovations. At the time, the project was considered long overdue, and it featured many of the same improvements included in the current renovations. Santangelo did not know whether any renovations were actually done in 2005 or whether there is any overlap with the current project.
Expect closer scrutiny this time around. Gentzel said Snowe will be carefully monitoring the use of the funds as the project continues to move forward. She also has introduced legislation that would update and expand www.recovery.gov, the Web site launched by the White House to track spending under the economic stimulus legislation, the spokesman said.
Davis hopes Maine’s congressional delegation lives up to its promise.
“The public deserves an honest explanation,” he said.