During its first-ever virtual meeting, the Burlington City Council on Monday approved spending $1 million in proceeds from the sale of Burlington Telecom to help residents access services during the pandemic.
The council, which met via the video-conferencing platform Zoom, unanimously approved a resolution to create what Mayor Miro Weinberger has dubbed the Resource and Recovery Center, among other relief measures.
"These are funds that allow the city to mount an urgent response," the mayor said.
The response center will be staffed by employees from the city's Community Economic Development Office. About $200,000 of the $1 million will help pay those workers' salaries, which are normally grant-funded, Weinberger said.
The CEDO staffers will help Burlington residents apply for unemployment benefits, connect homeless residents with services, disseminate translated health bulletins and manage community volunteer efforts, Weinberger said.
About $250,000 will cover expenses for the city's Emergency Operations Center, such as for gowns and gloves for first responders. The remaining $550,000 is earmarked for "urgent needs that may emerge in the coming weeks," according to a memo Weinberger sent to councilors.
One of those expenses could be those incurred for a collaborative project between the city and the state Department for Children and Families. DCF is attempting to relocate people from emergency shelters to campers that may be sited in Burlington. Some of the BT funds could cover the city's costs, Weinberger said.
The resolution also waived fees for delinquent utility bills, allowed businesses to keep the revenues generated from the city's gross receipts tax until June 30, and started a process to push back the due date for municipal taxes from June 12 to August 12 without penalty to taxpayers "who are significantly impacted by this emergency."
Weinberger said he'll likely seek further permission to use more of the $4.8 million in BT funds, dip into other city reserves or take out low-interest loans to keep the city remain financially solvent during the crisis.
The virus will likely wipe out nearly $5 million of the city's anticipated $20 million in revenue in the last few months of the fiscal year, which "will almost certainly be the most challenging quarter the City has faced in decades," the mayor's memo said.
The city may be able to recoup 75 percent of these "disaster-related" expenses from the federal government, Weinberger said.
Progressive councilors succeeded in tacking on other nonbinding clauses to the resolution that urge state and federal officials to protect renters from evictions, to issue a shelter-in-place order and to halt deportations.
The original resolution included language to urge Gov. Phil Scott to halt evictions for nonpayment, but Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) proposed an amendment to add even more renter protections.
The section now urges Scott to "to enact a moratorium on all evictions, suspend all new filings, stay all current proceedings, stay all current escrow orders, stay all unexecuted writs of possession, and [enact] a rent freeze," regardless of whether the person's income was depleted due to the virus.
Freeman's amendment passed 8 to 4. Councilors Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), Chip Mason (D-Ward 5), Joan Shannon (D-South District) and Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) voted no.
Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), who voted for Freeman's amendment, said he's heard "very real desperation from the community" about the rent issue.
Some of those affected by the economic slowdown called into the meeting and urged the council to take action. Weinberger has asked several housing providers to halt evictions during the crisis but has no legal authority to ban them.
"[Renters] want some sense of reassurance from this council that we're listening and that we're advocating for their needs," Tracy said.
But another caller, Timothy McGrath, wondered why the city isn't helping him.
"No one has said a word about small landlords like me who have to pay taxes, insurance and fees and every other thing about keeping a house going," he said. "What is the city going to do to help me? Anything?"
The resolution also codifies the mayor's recent pleas to evacuate rehab patients from the Burlington Health & Rehabilitation Center facility, where 14 patients have contracted COVID-19 and four have died.
During public comment, Jennifer Decker spoke on behalf of local activist Albert Petrarca, who is a patient at the Pearl Street nursing home. Petrarca has publicly lambasted the facility's management of the virus.
"I would like to know exactly what the state and city plans to do to save the life of our friend," Decker said. "It's not just Albert — it's all of the people inside of that facility ... It's not OK to leave people in that condition like sitting ducks."
Monday's meeting marked the last for three councilors. Bushor, who had served on the council since 1987, was ousted from her seat by Progressive political newcomer Zoraya Hightower on Town Meeting Day.
Wright, who has been a public servant for 25 years, decided not to run for reelection. Democrat Sarah Carpenter will represent Ward 4.
And Adam Roof (I-Ward 8), who lost to Progressive Jane Stromberg earlier this month, also made his exit after five years on the council.
"Whether we like it or not, we've become this dysfunctional family of 12," Roof said, holding back tears. "I mean that from the bottom of my heart. We don't always agree, but we always try to stay true to what motivates us, and I think that's what a good family does."