A Burlington city councilor will introduce a resolution on Monday that seeks to grant the council additional powers to protect renters, tax the wealthy and set a minimum wage for Queen City workers.
Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) proposes changing the city charter to allow the council to enact several new ordinances to achieve a "just economy." The COVID-19 pandemic, the resolution says, has "exposed the rampant inequality in the United States."
"It would be a really good way for Burlington to lead on how to address some of these long-standing structural injustices," Freeman said in an interview. "What we're seeing now is how much those structural issues have really put people in an extremely vulnerable place."
If approved Monday, the resolution would send several significant changes to the council's Charter Change Committee. The first would allow the council to create an ordinance that protects tenants from evictions without cause and workers from wrongful termination.
The second set of ordinances would target wealthier Burlingtonians, allowing the council to create a municipal income tax for people making $125,000 a year or more. Another would levy a "municipal luxury sales tax" on all property sales that exceed $500,000.
The third would allow the council to set a minimum wage for Burlington workers and create "minimum standards for employers in the city to provide their employees with a written, good faith estimate of the employee’s work schedule."
Freeman's resolution also seeks to increase citizen participation in the city budgeting process. This, too, would require a charter change, all of which must be approved by voters.
Freeman said she was inspired by voters in Portland, Ore., who approved a 1 percent income tax on wealthy residents earlier this month. Over the next decade, the measure is expected to raise $250 billion to address issues related to homelessness, the Associated Press reported. Burlington's tax would affect the 12 percent of residents who make at least $125,000 a year.
Freeman said the virus has revealed economic inequalities that Burlingtonians have faced for years. Sixty percent of Queen City residents are renters, and more than half are "severely cost-burdened," according to the city's 2018 Equity Report. About 16 percent of noncollege residents live in poverty, a figure that's 50 percent higher than the national average, the resolution says.
COVID-19 has made essential workers especially vulnerable, "because they are afraid of losing their jobs if they seek higher pay for doing dangerous work," Freeman's resolution reads.
The proposals face a long road before they could be enacted. The council will decide on Monday night whether to refer the resolution to the Charter Change Committee for further study. The committee would then issue a recommendation on the eviction and wrongful firing issues to the full council by August 10. If approved, the question would go to voters on the November 3 general election ballot.
The resolution gives the Charter Change Committee until early November to review the tax issues, which would be placed on the Town Meeting Day 2021 ballot. The minimum-wage proposal would return to the full council in March 2021 for inclusion on a future ballot.
Even if voters approve the charter changes, the Vermont legislature would have to weigh in before they could become final. And if the resolution crosses that finish line, the ordinances themselves would require a separate vetting process before they'd become law, Freeman said.
The Burlington Prog expects several cosponsors to sign on before Monday's meeting. Freeman emphasized that passing the resolution is "to get the ball rolling" and that the Charter Change Committee — of which Freeman is a member — would work out the details.