Hours Before Deadline, Burlington City Council Approves New Budget | Off Message

Hours Before Deadline, Burlington City Council Approves New Budget


Protesters downtown - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Protesters downtown
Less than two hours before the new fiscal year was set to begin, the Burlington City Council approved a $78 million general fund budget that allocates $1.25 million toward racial justice and police reform initiatives.

Fueled by recent community pushback on police spending, the council debated the budget for more than five hours Tuesday as the July 1 deadline drew closer. A majority eventually approved the spending measure by a 9-3 tally, with councilors Jack Hanson (P-East District), Perri Freeman (P-Central District) and Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) voting no.

"In a time of a pandemic, to be able to pass a budget that has no layoffs, no furloughs of permanent employees and no tax increase, and largely keeps intact most of the city services is actually pretty remarkable," Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) said. "I think it's really important for us to ... put aside our own personal issues or grievances we may have and look at what in totality is being accomplished here."

Councilors traded barbs during Tuesday's debate, with some accusing others of being unprepared and of micromanaging the budget process. Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) called many of the exchanges "petty."

Before the roll call, Mayor Miro Weinberger chided the councilors who had announced they'd vote against the spending plan.

"A no vote is a vote for government shutdown," the mayor said. "A no vote is a vote to put everybody out of work tomorrow."

The budget vote came less than 24 hours after a bipartisan council majority voted to reduce through attrition the police force to 74 sworn officers, a 30 percent cut from the Burlington Police Department's maximum roster of 105. There are currently 90 cops on the force.

Weinberger's budget had sought to keep 12 officer vacancies unfilled. His budget resolution, prepared late last week, included a clause that would have frozen police hiring unless staffing fell below 85. The council edited the provision Tuesday night to say that the department can hire only if staffing drops below 74 officers.
The approved $16.3 million police budget represents a $1.6 million, or 8.9 percent, reduction from the just-ended fiscal year's police spending. The plan includes $860,503 in cuts and shifts $735,000 to the budget for the Department of Public Works, which will take over the Police Department's parking enforcement duties.

Councilors also approved Weinberger's plan to form a $1 million Racial Equity and Justice Fund to invest in "economic opportunity, public health, housing, and other sectors," including hiring additional staff for the city's Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. A separate $250,000 Public Safety Transformation Fund will be used to "consider further changes to the Police Department," such as by increasing street outreach social services.

In a prior version of his budget, Weinberger had proposed a single $300,000 fund to address both of those initiatives but realized they "would have been competing for a limited universe of dollars," he told the Board of Finance on Monday.

"Now there are two funds, so it is very clear that we will make progress on both fronts," Weinberger said.

Councilors attempted to cut more from the police budget Tuesday night. With a 7-5 vote, the council agreed to eliminate the department's $9,000 marketing and promotion budget. The funds are typically used for Creemee With a Cop events, branded stickers and other community outreach efforts, acting Chief Jon Murad said.

All five Democratic councilors voted against the cut. Hanson later moved to reallocate the $9,000 to Public Works in an attempt to reinstate one of the numerous seasonal and temporary positions cut from the budget. That motion failed in a 6-6 vote.

A majority of councilors initially voted to slash $13,800 earmarked for police equipment, such as bulletproof vests. But the council subsequently reversed the vote and left that line item untouched. Hanson, Freeman, Stromberg and City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) all voted for the reduction.

Councilors also attempted to eliminate or reduce the $25,000 police recruitment budget. Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) asked why the department would need to market itself when it's not hiring. Murad said he expects the ranks will drop below 74 faster than councilors think.

"We are going to be losing officers owing not just to tenure attrition, but owing to a sense that there are other opportunities for them, and they're not supported here," he said.

Jennifer Morrison, the interim police chief who is currently on leave to care for her husband, Zoomed in to the meeting to say that cutting the recruitment budget would hamper the department's efforts to hire more social workers. The vote failed 6-6, leaving the line item fully funded.

Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said he was disturbed by his fellow councilors' nitpicking of the budget. "This honestly feels just punitive to me and [is] a level of micromanagement that is astounding from my perspective," he said.

Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) criticized Hanson and Stromberg for proposing a variety of small cuts to many city departments.

"To be debating $30 and $50 and $500 amendments all night long ... is the most absurd thing I have been through," Shannon said. "I am fully supportive of this budget, and I'll leave it at that."

Though police reform was the primary focus, the finalized budget also invests in the city's Net Zero Energy Plan, clean water infrastructure and staffing for a third city ambulance.
All city employees will receive a cost-of-living increase except for those who make more than $100,000; those workers' pay will be frozen. Weinberger, who made about $112,000 last fiscal year, said he will take a 10 percent pay cut.

Freeman introduced a budget amendment that would have asked all city employees who make $100,000 or more a year to take a voluntary 10 percent pay cut, but it failed in a 6-6 vote on party lines with Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) voting no alongside the five Democrats.

Weinberger said that those employees are already taking a pay cut since their pension contributions and health care payments are increasing this year. He lamented that hard working department heads and other senior officials had become a "target" in the council's discussion.

"It really makes me worry about the future of the city," Weinberger said. "We're gonna have to find a way to get past this if we're going to be able to get anything done together in the year ahead."

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