BANGOR, Maine — Bangor City Councilors tapped Ben Sprague to serve as their new chairman during a meeting Wednesday morning.
“In a time when Washington D.C. is crippled by partisan gridlock and Augusta passes down one burden after another to our city, it is worth remembering that every single person in this room, whether you are a citizen, staff member or city councilor is united by one thing: We all want what is best for Bangor,” Sprague said during a strongly worded 15-minute acceptance speech.
He lauded the economic and cultural growth Bangor has seen in recent years and criticized Augusta and Washington for their partisanship.
“There is a new vibrancy in Bangor that we see in our downtown area, along the waterfront, in the new arena,” Sprague said. “I travel all around the state and people are saying to me with respect and admiration, ‘What is going on in Bangor? You guys are really on the move.’”
The city isn’t free of challenges. Sprague cited Bangor’s reputation as having problems with drugs and crime and its median income of $37,700, which is about $10,000 less than the state average and $15,000 less than the national average.
The city has tried to address some of its drug issues, reacting to the “bath salts epidemic,” putting a police officer on the downtown walking beat, working with neighborhood watch groups and working with area head shops to ban the sale and use of synthetic pot in the city.
“These actions are starting to make a difference,” Sprague said. “They will continue to make a difference.”
Sprague, 30, is believed to be the youngest Bangor council chairperson in recent memory. Bill Cohen was 31 when he became chairman in 1971. The next year, he won a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives.
The state’s cuts to revenue sharing and an increasing number of mandates passed onto cities by both the state and federal government made the latest budget season one of the worst in recent memory, leading to cuts across city departments. Sprague said it’s likely to happen again next year if officials from Bangor and other large Maine communities aren’t involved and working closely with legislators.
“Bangor cannot bear the burdens of an entire region,” Sprague said. “Augusta has poached revenue that is meant for cities and towns for education and infrastructure. It has been choking off our mental health center, Dorothea Dix, with untold human consequences.”
Sprague also stressed the need for the city to use technology to its advantage. By mapping out data on issues such as crime and abandoned properties and monitoring how those issues evolve as the city implements changes, the city can get a hold on what works and use those methods in other neighborhoods. By using “smart” public trash cans that inform public works when they’re full, the city can save money by increasing efficiency, he said. By taking a picture on their phone and texting it to a city number, residents could inform city workers about a downed tree limb or pothole, speeding up response times.
“There are plenty of reasons for optimism,” Sprague said. “That said, it is time for us as a community to stop saying ‘Haven’t we come so far?’ and instead start saying, ‘What do we want to become?’”
Also during the Wednesday morning meeting, City Clerk Lisa Goodwin swore in the council’s two newly elected members, Gibran Graham and Josh Plourde. Former Council Chairman Nelson Durgin also rejoined the council for another three-year term after his successful re-election bid.
Durgin said he would be helping Sprague in his transition to the Maine Mayors Coalition, a group of mayors and council chairs formed in 2012 to lobby in front of the state on behalf of their communities.
He credited the 2012 crop of councilors for its work during a difficult financial year, passing a unanimous budget in spite of a string of painful cuts.
“I found it very satisfying working with that group of people,” Durgin said, adding that he looks forward to working with this new council.
Graham and Plourde said they were excited to get to work and continue delving into the issues facing Bangor.
Sprague will take up the gavel as chairman and Graham and Plourde will take their seats as councilors for the first time during a Wednesday night full council meeting. That meeting starts at 7:30 p.m.