The Burlington City Council voted resoundingly on Monday night to use millions of dollars to renovate City Hall Park, a decision that paves the way for the controversial project to begin this spring.
Ahead of the 10-2 vote, dozens of people who oppose the park renovation turned out to try to convince councilors to vote down the $5.8 million in financing. The opponents, part of a group called Keep the Park Green, say the renovation will result in the removal of healthy trees and is too expensive.
The renovation will, in fact, cost more than previously expected. The lowest bid came in at $4.9 million, significantly higher than the initial estimate of $4 million. Mayor Miro Weinberger attributed the higher price tag to increased cost for soil remediation and the plan to protect existing trees during construction. He also blamed the opposition group and delays in the process for causing the cost to spike.
Members of the city Department of Public Works and the Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Department continued to amend the design up until Monday's meeting to try to lower the cost. Still, "the sticker shock was real," Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8) saidat the meeting.
The final price tag of $5.8 million will cover the costs of the lowest bidder, S.D. Ireland, as well as other contractors and design work.
Property taxes will cover $1.25 million of the total. Most of the remainder will be funded by tax increment financing dollars, bonds and grants. Additionally, private donors gave a total of $1.5 million toward the project. Among them was Trey Pecor, president of Lake Champlain Transportation, who donated $500,000.
Councilors eventually decided the amount would be worth it. “Nice things cost money,” Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District) said.
The vote marks the conclusion of a planning process that began in 2011. The new park will include widened walkways, a new fountain, more seating and more landscaping. As part of the effort to cut costs, the city eliminated a planned public bathroom for the park, though there will be plumbing and Weinberger pledged to find cash to eventually install toilets.
Keep the Park Green members criticized both the high price tag and the proposed redesign. Michael Long called the planning process "secretive" and the ultimate plan "heavy on hardscape and exorbitantly priced.”
"I hope you give some consideration for the people who are going to be paying for" the plan, Donna Walters, another opponent, told the council.
The meeting marked a last-ditch effort for the group to halt the project. Last summer, members reached a compromise with the council to keep more trees in the park than the original proposal called for.
This winter, members of Keep the Park Green secured enough signatures to get a question on the ballot asking voters to weigh in on the park plan, but the city council voted against putting it on the Town Meeting Day ballot. The group then filed suit against the city, contending that the project required voter approval because it involved taxpayer money. A judge denied the group's effort to stop the project from moving forward while the case makes its way through the courts.
Construction is expected to be completed in July 2020.
Separately on Monday, the council approved a measure asking a committee to review the city's conflict of interest policy. The Hartnett-backed proposal would examine whether councilors and other city officials should be required to publicly disclose more detail about their conflicts. "We don't want to lose the public trust. We can't afford to do that," Hartnett said. The committee will report back to the full council in July.
Monday also marked the final meeting for longtime Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Central District), Hartnett and Richard Deane (D-East District). New councilors Perri Freeman, Franklin Paulino and Jack Hanson will be sworn in next week.