Yes and No: Burlington Voters Reject Capital Spending Plan, Approve Energy Bond | Off Message

Yes and No: Burlington Voters Reject Capital Spending Plan, Approve Energy Bond


A voter at the Miller Center on Tuesday - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A voter at the Miller Center on Tuesday
Updated 9:33 p.m.

A pair of city spending plans got mixed results during a special Burlington election on Tuesday.

Voters shot down a $40 million capital bond, which would have fixed up sidewalks and replaced aging fire trucks, 57.3 percent to 42.7 percent; it needed a two-thirds majority to pass. The plan would have raised taxes for the average homeowner.

But voters approved a $20 million revenue bond for the Burlington Electric Department, which will get the city closer to its goal of eliminating its use of fossil fuels by 2030. That item passed 70 percent to 30 percent with a simple majority.

The capital bond's failure marks the first time in Mayor Miro Weinberger's nine-plus years in office that voters have said "no" to a bond vote. They previously approved a $27.5 million bond in 2016, the first part of Weinberger's 10-year capital spending plan that upgraded most of the city’s bike path and fixed 14 miles of sidewalks.

“This bond was an opportunity to continue the high level of investment in our City’s future of the last five years and address outstanding challenges," Weinberger said in a statement Tuesday evening. "Over the coming weeks, the City team will evaluate how to most effectively move forward in this period of uncertainty and many competing challenges to find another route to address our public infrastructure needs that the taxpayers can support.”

The oddly-timed election came just three months before the regular Town Meeting Day vote in March. Weinberger had said a special ballot was justified because there's no guarantee that current low interest rates will hold, and because the pandemic had already set the city's planning back a year.

Turnout was low: Just 6,910 of the 33,883 registered voters cast ballots, about 20.4 percent. And 5,665 of those voters cast early ballots, so polling places saw little foot traffic.

This year’s ask would have earmarked $10 million for Memorial Auditorium, a structurally unsound building downtown that closed in 2016. The remaining $30 million was to be paired with $111 million in federal and state transportation grants, pandemic recovery funds and city money to replace aging fire trucks and snowplows, fix up crumbling sidewalks and more.

Had it passed, the owner of a median-priced home — about $379,100 — would have owed incrementally higher taxes over the bond’s 20-year lifespan, peaking at about $13 more per month in 2025.

The net-zero bond won't raise taxes, city officials say. The Burlington Electric Department will use the borrowed money to offer more rebates for customers to purchase electric bicycles, heat pumps and other items; in turn, the customers will purchase more electricity from the utility, which will use the additional revenue to pay down the debt.

BED general manager Darren Springer thanked voters for supporting the bond, which he said will "provide a foundational investment for climate progress."

"Today’s vote not only moves us toward a Net Zero Energy future," Springer said in a statement, "but also offers a compelling financing model for other public power utilities around the nation to consider as we all look to meet our climate commitments.”

Two voters outside city polling places on Tuesday said living in the city is already too costly, particularly given the recent citywide reappraisal that raised taxes for the majority of Burlington homeowners.

One voter at the Ward 7 polling site, who refused to provide his name, said the city shouldn’t be asking for money when the federal infrastructure bill could address capital needs in Burlington.

Maxine Holmes voted “no” on both ballot items at her polling place at the Integrated Arts Academy in the Old North End. Holmes, a Ward 2 resident who has lived in Burlington for nearly 50 years, said the money won’t address the issues she thinks are priorities: public safety and fixing “the big hole” downtown, as she called the site of the CityPlace Burlington project that has left a city block vacant for years.

“As far as I'm concerned, if they're not going to put a penny into things that will make it better for us to live here ... then I'm against any kind of increase,” Holmes said.