Value legacy of Bangor sidewalks

Posted Oct. 25, 2009, at 5:45 p.m.

A close look at our sidewalks and an appreciation of the growth pattern of trees illustrates the effect that TABOR II will have on Bangor.

Bangor is blessed by its geography — nestled in a shallow valley at the intersection of two rivers, it has tree-lined streets and neighborhoods built around parks and within walking distance of most primary schools. We are connected by roads but also by sidewalks, all 150 miles of them. Sidewalks date from the origins of the city when our forebears spent more time on foot than we do now; they bring people out of their homes to go to the store, to school, for exercise; they are part of the glue that holds us together.

In the recession of the early 1990s, revenues decreased and the city eliminated sidewalk maintenance. No one noticed at first; sidewalks age slowly. But 10 years later, people did notice — our sidewalks were a mess, crumbling, sections destroyed by tree roots, unsafe. So since 2000, Bangor has been slowly repairing its side-walks — 3 miles this year, 5 miles the next — as finances allow. It is slow, expensive work at $15 per foot, but it is now a regular part of the city’s budget. Jim Ring, Bangor’s city engineer, estimates that it will be another 20 years before all the repairs are in place — and then it will be time to start again. This is what main-tenance of infrastructure is all about.

If TABOR II passes in November, there will be a slow ratcheting down of city services. We won’t notice that our sidewalks are again falling into disrepair because the change will occur imperceptibly, small section by small section. The same can be said for our roads. Fewer teachers and a handful of kids who are not living up to their potential won’t make headlines. Will we attribute increasing drug use and the appearance of gangs to fewer policemen and more numerous fires to a lower number of firefighters? Who will notice if the streets are not plowed until 4 inches of snow accumulate?

Can we get by? Of course; we are, after all, resilient Yankees. But will we be leaving our city better than we found it? No. The next generation will have to pick up the pieces if they want Bangor to have good sidewalks, schools, roads, public safety services and all that goes with them.

In 2009, the Bangor City Council kept the mill rate steady at $19.05, a formidable but eventually successful task. We cut extras from our spending and instituted a hiring freeze. We are in the middle of a recession, and we all must tighten our belts. We cut down on but did not eliminate money for ongoing sidewalk repairs. We hope good times will come again.

TABOR II is complex, but its major provision sets the current year as the baseline year from which all state and local budgets will be permitted to grow — unless there is a future year in which there is an even lower spending level that sets a new baseline. It ties city expenditures to the Consumer Price Index, not the cost of services used by municipalities (the price of asphalt and jail cells do not necessarily parallel that of consumer staples) and requires that all major changes in taxes be approved by voters. Much of the control of state and municipal finances is ceded to rigid, formula driven limits on spending growth.

Sidewalk upkeep in Bangor is like the growth rings on a tree — a nice expanse of new growth indicates good times, narrowing a drought. One is a historical record of our economic times, the other a record of Mother Nature’s whims. TABOR II will consign our sidewalks and many other municipal services to ever narrowing and finally disappearing growth rings.

Even in times of bounty, our tree will not be permitted to grow beyond what it did in its poorest year unless all the furies under Mother Nature’s command vote that it be so. Under TABOR II, the money for repair of our city’s sidewalks will shrivel and the pleasant walkable city we inherited from our forebears will be but a memory.

Geoff Gratwick is a member of the Bangor City Council.

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