Keeping up with upkeep

Aug. 13, 2013 @ 05:47 PM

For politicians and public officials, few things are as satisfying and as image-burnishing as a ribbon cutting or groundbreaking.

Those are concrete evidence government is doing something for us. Even fiscal conservatives may be briefly excited about the new recreation center, the new elementary school or the new bridge.

And since politicians depend on our votes and we pay the salaries of public officials, it’s natural they will be proud and looking for some public love around those events.

It is, let’s face it, so much less exhilarating – and publicly celebrated – to replace a heating and air conditioning system, repair a roof, reline a baseball diamond or replace aging plumbing.

But maintenance, as any homeowner with a roof that benign neglect has transformed from a pesky leak to a collapse can attest, is vitally important.

Two developments from Durham City Hall this month brought that into focus in generally favorable ways – although not necessarily reflecting well on the past.

City Council members, The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg reported Sunday, are close to adopting a long-term parks strategy that stresses more consistent park maintenance.  The plan doesn’t ignore that population growth, especially in South Durham, will eventually require new recreation centers.

But it also pledges more attention to keeping the parks and centers we have in better shape. Mayor Bill Bell, supportive of the new direction, noted he wasn’t thinking about “the big things” but about such nagging problems as grass growing in sandboxes or rusty swing sets.

Also this month, repairs got underway to the Chapel Hill Street parking deck, whose sad-sack appearance is perhaps accented by its proximity to City Hall. 

Officials acknowledged that the deck’s paving and surface problems have been around for years. When emergency repairs a few years ago staved off danger of collapse of the upper decks, the city opted not to do other repairs both because of cost and because the deck might be replaced as part of new, private development.

Any further waiting will only drive up the cost, General Services Department Joel Reitzer told officials earlier this summer. And motorists who have bumped nervously along the pockmarked ramps leading to the upper decks would no doubt agree any further delay is not good.

It’s worth noting the deck – parking choice for many citizens coming for a council meeting or other City Hall business – is one of government’s more visible fixtures. And parks and recreation centers are the familiar face of a government that might otherwise be fairly abstract to many.

The city realized a few years ago the importance of  perhaps the most constantly visible sign of government at work – our city streets, many of which for years had been in embarrassingly bad condition.

Tom Bonfield as city manager has often insisted on remembering ongoing operating – including maintenance – costs when considering new projects. It’s encouraging that the city continues to look for ways to catch up on maintenance backlogs that may in part result from not always remembering that important fact.