The full Burlington City Council got its first glance on Monday at Mayor Miro Weinberger’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal, but the body won’t vote on the spending plan until later this month.
Weinberger’s $87.3 million budget would restore city services that were curtailed during the coronavirus pandemic and invests in racial justice, public health and additional staffing. Only two of the 13 tax rates that comprise the city's municipal rate will go up substantially next year, making the overall property tax increase about 4.4 percent, according to chief administrative officer Katherine Schad.
"We have attempted to minimize property tax increases as much as possible, recognizing that this remains a challenging financial time for many Burlington individual households," Weinberger said.
The proposed budget is about $8.8 million more than the current year's, which amounts to an increase of about 11 percent.
The spending plan, which the council's Board of Finance has already vetted, includes $930,000 to hire community service officers and liaisons, or unarmed workers who would respond to non-emergency calls in place of police. Both of those initiatives would be funded with the savings created by attrition at the Burlington Police Department.
Other investments include $290,000 to pay seasonal and temporary workers a livable wage — a concept championed by Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) — and $150,000 to compensate people who serve on city boards and commissions.
Nearly $763,000 would go toward one-time costs such as anti-racism training for city employees ($300,000); a new city mural depicting Black, Indigenous and people of color ($165,000); and additional staff to complete the city's property reassessment ($95,000).
The city would use $10 million of its $27 million allocation of federal coronavirus relief funds to primarily replace lost revenues. About $5 million would prop up the city’s operating budget; $3.5 million would go toward capital projects; and $500,000 for the ongoing public health emergency, including costs associated with reopening city government.
Councilors generally gave the budget a positive review. Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said he appreciated that the budget addresses the climate crisis. The plan includes $1.5 million for bike and pedestrian infrastructure — including new bike lanes and crosswalks on University Place and protected bike lanes on North Champlain Street — and $2.2 million to rebuild three miles of sidewalks.
Weinberger has also proposed purchasing a new electric bucket truck and installing electric vehicle charging stations.
"There's a lot that I'm really excited about in the budget, and hopefully we can make a couple more tweaks as well, but [I] appreciate the process and the opportunity to be involved in it," Hanson said.
Weinberger thanked councilors for their input, noting that his proposal includes a number of suggestions that came directly from them.
Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) cautioned his colleagues to fully consider the cost of new initiatives, noting that the city can't rely on its rainy day fund and federal assistance to defray costs in perpetuity.
"I think we need to pay particular attention to that," he said.
The genial discussion was a clear departure from last year’s strained budget debates that focused on policing. The council approved that budget just hours before the deadline after a record-breaking, days-long public forum about police staffing cuts.
The council is scheduled to resume budget deliberations at its June 28 meeting.
Also Monday, councilors denied a request from CityPlace Burlington developers to waive the annual fee they owe to the Church Street Marketplace.
Every year, councilors approve a "common area fee," which all property owners in the marketplace district pay and which is the department's largest revenue source. The council set the fee for next fiscal year at $2.87 per square foot.
The CityPlace team will owe $71,500 for its nearly 25,000 square feet of retail space at 49 Church Street, the street address of what remains of the Burlington Town Center Mall.
In a letter to the city, CityPlace managing partner Don Sinex wrote that the mall “was literally destroyed” by the coronavirus pandemic and that it can’t afford the “extraordinarily high [fees] … due to its disastrous financial condition.” The lease for the mall's only tenant, Starbucks, will expire in October, Sinex said.
The property lost about $412,000 last year and is on pace to lose more than $1 million in 2021, according to Sinex.
"Unless relief is granted then BTC will necessarily seek relief in the courts," he wrote, referring to CityPlace's business name, BTC Mall Associates.
Members of the council weren't persuaded. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said the pandemic affected all who pay the marketplace fee. Approving CityPlace's grievance would further burden those property owners "because the difference would have to be made up," Shannon said. The city stands to collect nearly $700,000 in marketplace fees.
Councilor Dieng suggested that the CityPlace team formally ask for a fee abatement, a request that would be heard by a separate board.
Earlier in the meeting, councilors held a work session about returning to in-person meetings at city hall. On Monday morning, Gov. Phil Scott had removed all COVID-19 restrictions after he announced that more than 80 percent of eligible Vermonters have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Fully remote meetings will no longer be permitted under Vermont's open meeting law once the state of emergency expires at midnight Tuesday.
Several councilors said presenters and members of the public should be able to continue Zooming in to meetings if they don't want to trek to city hall. They weighed the logistical challenge of managing public forums with virtual callers and in-person attendees, the latter of whom councilors agreed should be allowed to speak first — but only if they're from Burlington.
"As we get into this, there's lots of questions to work through," City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) said.
City Hall's Contois Auditorium can host hybrid meetings starting in August, once the city completes some technology upgrades. Until then, the council may choose to hold "mostly remote" meetings, where at least one person goes to a physical meeting place and can admit members of the public.
Members of two council committees will meet this week in other conference rooms, allowing for both virtual and in-person access.