Since 1990, the utility company has been upgrading gas pipes throughout the city to comply with a state law requiring greater protection from corrosion and leakage. Last year, MGE landed in Squier Park, a tight-knit neighborhood between Troost on the west, the Paseo on the east, Armour Boulevard on the north and 39th Street on the south. Digging holes at the ends of each block, the company shoved the new pipes into position under the medians between the neighborhood's sidewalks and curbs.
The company worked through the fall and returned this spring to clean up the mess. But Barnett and Squier Park president Haughey say the company failed to repair sidewalks and curbs after digging holes in front of individual lots to connect lines to the new pipe.
The two neighborhood leaders point to cracked sidewalk panels that di-rectly line up with houses' gas meters. They point to fissures running across newly laid concrete sidewalks and curbs along Tracy Avenue. They point to gashes left over from equipment and chunks of concrete nearby. They point to large, spiderweb fractures lined with nothing but dirt. "If these were old and existing cracks, there would be weeds growing up," Barnett says.
One block north, they stop in front of two vacant lots on opposite sides of the street. The sidewalk on the east side, where work took place, shows some of the area's most severe damage. "All of a sudden, there are no houses, and there are whole sections where they busted the hell out of the sidewalks," Barnett says.
MGE spokesman Paul Snider says that inspectors from both the company and the city surveyed the area and concluded that the neighborhood was restored properly. "We look for sidewalks that have been cracked to where they're going to crumble and they're going to be unsound," he says. To go back and repair any remaining damages, he adds, would be a costly procedure that would affect all MGE customers. "That's where our dilemma is. We can't go out and replace sidewalks in an entire neighborhood. The bottom line is at this point, we don't feel it's justified to replace those sidewalks."
But MGE will have a hard time selling Squier Park residents on that reasoning. "They came, it's cracked, and now they're gone," says Mike Morgan, who has lived in the area for more than ten years. "MGE gets to sell us energy, and they can tear up our sidewalks, tear up our driveways, damage our fences, drill holes through our houses. But that doesn't matter to them. Their intent is that pipeline."
Barnett and Morgan have bought the rights to the Internet domain name www.mgesucks.com to document the sidewalk damage in Squier Park and fruitless communications with MGE officials (they hope the site will be up this week). Now neighborhood leaders are speaking to city hall, which they believe is responsible for keeping an eye on utility construction along rights-of-way. "Sidewalks are city property, aren't they?" Barnett says.
Steve Barquist, the city's utility cut inspection supervisor, says city inspectors do not document damage that might be the result of utility work. Instead, they simply determine whether the company has properly fulfilled its excavation permit. If citizens have complaints, Barquist says they should first contact the utility company. If nothing comes of that, they should contact the city's Public Works department.
But in the case of Squier Park, residents have already taken that step and received little response. After walking the area under gray, looming clouds, the two stand on Barnett's porch and fret over the cost of complacency. The sidewalks will worsen with time, and Squier Park residents could be stuck with what they believe is the gas company's repair bill. Eventually, Barnett says, "the city will come through and say, 'The sidewalks have to be replaced and you have to pay it.'"