Sidewalk repair bill threatens monument

American Legion post in Curtis Bay owes city $7,225 for work

February 18, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

For nearly nine years, the marble memorial with the gold-painted cement eagle on top has stood in a grassy, otherwise empty lot, a white and bright slab standing out from the weeds, crumbling sidewalks and the unrelenting gray of life in Curtis Bay.

In winter, the memorial spends its time alone, a solitary monument to all the young neighborhood men who gave their lives to defend the United States. In the summer, it's a rallying point for impromptu stickball games, block parties and events held by the monument's owner and caretaker, American Legion Post 187.

This year, the city's decision to fix one piece of decaying Curtis Bay -- its sidewalks -- might cost the neighborhood its memorial.

The ailing Post 187 -- which is fast losing its aging membership -- says it cannot afford the $7,225 it owes the city for about 200 feet of sidewalk repairs around the monument. The bill was due Feb. 1, and it has gone unpaid. If the Legion can't come up with the money, city officials say, they have little choice but to put a lien on the property, which could expose the empty lot -- and the memorial -- to tax sale and foreclosure in May.

"I'm afraid we could lose this," says Milton Zientek, 74, a World War II veteran who commands the post. "I don't think the younger generation in power now knows too much about veterans."

The property, the former site of School 208, occupies a third of a block on Fairhaven Avenue between Church and Cherry streets. In 1972, the land was unkempt and the sidewalks in disrepair, but Zientek arranged for Post 187 to purchase the property as a site for a hall.

By the 1980s, the financially struggling post was running deficits, and the hall was never built there. In 1990, the Legionnaires solicited donations of money and labor to build a memorial, surrounded by three poles flying U.S., Maryland and POW-MIA flags. Post volunteers cut the grass and clean the monument.

"We never asked the city to do anything for us," says Zientek. "We never asked them to fix the sidewalk."

In summer 1997, Zientek, who used to own a hardware store on Patapsco Avenue, received notice from the city that the sidewalks needed repair. A year later, he had not found a contractor who might donate his work, and the city, as the law requires, said it would have to make the repairs and send the Legion the bill. Zientek said he never anticipated the cost. When the bill arrived in December, Post 187 owed $14,450.60.

Zientek complained to the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, which cut the bill in half. Zoning officials say the Legionnaires should be able to pay that, but Zientek insists they can't afford $7,225. What little money the post has, he says, helps fulfil charitable and service missions.

In recent weeks, Zientek has asked state Sen. George W. Della Jr., 6th District Councilman Edward L. Reisinger and officials of the Department of Public Works for help. All are sympathetic, but none sees any way to reverse the zoning board decision. Some city officials privately express concern that if an exception were made for the Legion, churches and other nonprofit groups in similar situations might flood the city with similar appeals.

"It upsets me, but I don't know what we can do at this point," says Reisinger. "You're talking about men who fought for this country and its laws. But time and the law [are] working against them."

A few years ago, the post launched a seemingly endless series of 50-50 raffle drawings to pay a $2,600 debt to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Post officials are not sure they could muster such a fund-raising effort today. Of the post's 172 members, half are inactive, uninterested or unable to get to the post because of age and illness. Their most reliable fund-raisers are $5 homemade dinners, often plates of seafood cooked by member Tom Watson, that the post sells Friday nights.

"Seven thousand dollars," says Ted Nittinger, the post's second vice president. "That's a lot of shrimp fritters -- more than we could eat."

Before a recent Friday dinner, Zientek and Nittinger walked to the memorial. They believe that someone -- perhaps the American Legion's Maryland headquarters -- will find a way to get the post, and the memorial, off the hook.

"Look around, and then look at the monument," says Zientek. "This is as peaceful as it gets here."

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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