Barrett Bullish on Bangor

(from Maine Townsman, May 2009)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

Ed Barrett

City Manager Ed Barrett remembers the Bangor of 1987, when he was hired as a manager for the first time in his public service career. The ground was frozen. The snow was deep and slippery. The roads were a mess.

At least to someone from Texas.

Twenty-two years later, despite uphill climbs and ongoing municipal challenges, Barrett told the Maine Townsman recently he had no regrets about moving to Bangor.

“I really love living in this community and this part of the state,” he said. “It’s really a small big city in a lot of ways.”

Prior to coming to Maine, Barrett worked as director of administration and then as assistant manager of Wichita Falls, Texas, a city of about 100,000 on the Texas-Oklahoma border.

A Cleveland native, Barrett earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Dayton and then completed three years of graduate school in political science at the University of Arizona.

He was hired in the budget office for the city of Tucson, Arizona, and was promoted to the head of the department before leaving for Texas.

At a conference in 1986, Barrett met the person who was hired by the Bangor council to recruit manager candidates. When asked, he “took a look (at the Maine job) and applied.”

“I wanted to manage a city of my own,” Barrett recalled, “but I also really liked that it was a ‘real place.’ It was not a suburb. It wasn’t socio-economically similar. I just thought it was a terrific place. Small enough to be friendly, but big enough to be diverse.”

Barrett also was attracted to the environment of the Greater Bangor area, where he canoes one day every weekend, skimming around different lakes and enjoying the “relatively or totally undeveloped” landscape.

“I love being out there in the natural world,” he said.

The city’s school system, which Barrett called “fine,” also makes Bangor a place where people want to live. His son, Will (“He was born in Texas so we avoided ‘Billy’”) graduated from Bangor High School before earning a degree in cello from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

These days, Barrett’s son runs his own business as a Web designer in the Chicago area.

“If you don’t have a quality school system,” he said, “it’s a detriment to your ability to maintain diversity and an economic balance (among) residents. We don’t want people not choosing Bangor because we are not (welcoming) to everyone.”

AHEAD TO THE PAST

During his two-plus decades in Bangor, Barrett is most proud of the ongoing effort of scores of Bangor leaders and municipal employees in transforming a dilapidated, mostly-empty and dirty downtown into one of the city’s brightest gems.

Gone are unused rail yards, brownfields and broken windows, replaced by new shops, a parking garage, senior living complexes, a renewed theater presence, the Maine Children’s Museum and second- and third-floor private residences.

“Now it’s a neighborhood,” Barrett said, also handing out praise and credit to Rod McKay, the city’s longtime economic and community development director who was pivotal in convincing many city councils over many years to make often-controversial and always-significant investments in the downtown.

The crowning jewel has become the city’s historic renovation and redevelopment of its Penobscot River waterfront, which sits in the shadow of the state’s only racino/hotel complex. In many situations, the city spent money and helped developers to make success a reality along the river, Barrett said.

Now home to the annual crowd-pleasing Maine Folk Festival and other popular events, the waterfront project includes a playground, walking trails and large stretches of green space where people fly kites and bring bagged lunches.

The effort, already 20 years old, will continue, Barrett said. “It’s amazing that the vision for the waterfront has remained intact, over so many years and because of the courageous votes of councilors and the hard work of city staff.

“It’s taken a very long time,” he added, “and a lot of city commitment and money.”

Barrett credits his own longevity as city manager to numerous people, particularly elected officials who have not run from controversy or tough times.

He also thinks his willingness to listen to new ideas and try different ways of solving problems has helped him be an effective manager.

One of his “favorite failures,” as he called it, was trying to resolve the city’s traffic and parking problems by developing standards for different neighborhoods, depending on the width of the road, the character of the place and the volume and speed of the traffic.

It all looked great on paper, but when the time came to try out the new standards on the ground in one quadrant of the city, Barrett and the council quickly dumped the idea in the face of heavy public opposition.

Barrett didn’t take the response personally and said the city still ended up with a set of standards it now uses on a street-by-street basis as problems arise.

Communication with the public also is imperative to success, Barrett said. He takes extra time to respond to emails and complaints, insists on transparency and widely publicizes important decisions and meetings.

He often is surprised, he said, by the number of people who comment to him about city issues and decisions they followed on local access TV.

“In this job, you experience every emotion possible except boredom,” he said, smiling.

Regarding his long tenure in the same city, Barrett offered another possible explanation. “One is tempted to say that maybe I’ve just been lucky.”

TODAY’S CHALLENGES

If you haven’t seen Barrett lately, that’s because he’s back at the drawing board responding to the governor’s latest proposed cuts in funding to Maine municipal government.

Budget shortfalls are no stranger to Barrett, but not since the tumultuous recession of the early 1990s has balancing needs against money been such a challenge.

“We’re right back where we started,” he said, referencing Gov. John Baldacci’s new proposal to cut State Revenue Sharing an additional 5 percent to 15 percent, a move that would reduce the city’s share by a total of $730,000 for fiscal year 2010 that begins July 1.

“It’s really a disproportionate cut to municipalities,” Barrett said, since SRS declines along with state tax collections, topped off by an across-the-board second cut in the local share in order to help balance the state budget.

Instead of waiting for help that likely won’t arrive, Barrett is busy revamping his $45 million municipal budget, which is now $1.3 million in the hole. He has asked his top managers to go back to their already-reduced department plans to find more places to cut spending or generate revenue to offset the latest cut to State Revenue Sharing of $244,000.

Barrett said he expects next year’s budget to be even more trying as the city’s coffers catch up with the economy. Moreover, should a referendum pass in November that would dramatically reduce vehicle excise taxes on the newest cars and trucks, Bangor’s 2011 budget would lose another $1.8 million in revenue.

That scenario, Barrett said, would be disastrous to Maine’s third-largest city and could even stymie city improvements that have been 20 years in the making. Just for starters, Barrett said, 35 to 40 city employees would lose their jobs.

Barrett said the city council and staff will do what they always do: Try to find a fair balance between the services people want and how much they are willing to pay for them.

He said municipal government budgets always lag behind the economy, and so they are developed and approved long before actual economic factors are known.

“We passed a budget (last year) in a recession we didn’t know existed,” he said. “That has been mitigated this year by the (federal) stimulus money, but I expect next year will be even more challenging.”

WARNING: BUMPS AHEAD

Barrett said Maine city and town managers have decided not to budget for the potential loss of excise tax, even though if statewide voters pass the November referendum it could take effect as early as January 1.

In Bangor’s case, city officials would then go back to the budget drawing board again to revamp the spending plan by an estimated $900,000 for the final six months of the fiscal year.

All municipalities with July-to-June fiscal years would be forced into the same painful drill.

“After a lot of discussion among manager groups, we decided the general approach would be to assume it will be as is,” Barrett said, meaning voters would reject the proposed dramatic cut in excise tax, which finances nearly all local road maintenance in Maine.

“We thought it was inappropriate to either make significant cuts in services or raise taxes in advance of the actual vote. Most managers agreed there would be terrible impacts on individual employees and services, and that would be punishing them and our residents for a vote they have not yet taken.

“It’s a decision most managers thought was right,” he said, while admitting he fears what would happen if the referendum passes.

Many residents think the excise tax collected annually on Maine vehicles goes to the state, when it actually stays in the municipality, Barrett said.

He is hopeful when people understand the direct link between the excise tax and the condition of roads and sidewalks, they will reject the question.

Cities like Bangor have never-ending financial challenges that will only grow as the population ages; more concern – and cost – is committed to the environment; insurance and other basic expenses continue to climb; and the state’s and nation’s economies remain in crisis, Barrett said.

“We are going to see challenges not seen before,” he predicted. “We will need to seriously think and re-think how to adapt to those trends.”

Barrett said he is proud of his experienced, effective and efficient staff who help operate a much larger community than its population would imply, mainly because it acts as the economic hub for nearly half of Maine.

Barrett favors a local-option sales tax (“Always have, always will”) to help cities such as Bangor – Maine’s so-called “service centers,” both large and small, that maintain the infrastructure and services for thousands of Mainers who live in small towns that might offer lower taxes but far fewer services, jobs, cultural events and retail opportunities.

To underline the city’s service-center status, Barrett quotes two statistics: Two-thirds of all traffic accidents involve one or both drivers who don’t live in Bangor; and on the Saturday before Christmas, 50,000 people shop at the Bangor Mall alone, in a city of about 33,000.

Barrett said he thinks the Legislature understands the unique and additional strain on property tax payers in Maine’s service-center communities, but he also has no illusions state officials would provide any relief in the short-term at least, especially during such trying financial times for every level of government.

As Bangor has historically, “The city has to find its own way,” he said.

 

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Bangor.