On Tuesday, Burlington voters approved a $98.2 million new school budget and a pair of $20-million-plus bonds that will allow the city to revamp Main Street and complete a long list of municipal projects.
But voters narrowly struck down a 4-cent municipal tax rate increase by just 300 votes, dealing a blow to city officials who viewed the proposal as a prudent attempt to close a looming budget deficit. Department heads will now likely need to scour their budgets for cuts in the coming weeks.
The mixed verdict suggests that some residents are feeling the pain in the aftermath of a controversial reappraisal process that raised property taxes on most homeowners. It also portends a tough fight ahead over the school district's pursuit of a new high school; just hours before the polls closed, officials revealed that it could cost upwards of $200 million.
"The senior citizens need some help," said Ward 7 voter Judie Blanchard, who has lived in the neighborhood for 38 years and voted against every ballot item, including the tax increase. "We can't afford all these increases."
Only one of the city's two approved bond proposals is expected to raise taxes: a $23.8 million capital item. It's projected to cost the owner of a $380,000 home an additional $36 in fiscal year 2023 and $89 when the cost peaks in 2025.
Officials hope to pair the bond with state and federal dollars to complete several projects, from fixing up city buildings and parks and rehabbing aging sidewalks, while also using it to match grant funds for transportation projects. It would also pay for three new fire trucks.
The other spending proposal approved on Tuesday is a $25.9 million bond slated for work along a six-block stretch of Main Street in the city’s downtown tax-increment financing district. That one is expected to pay for itself, since TIF allows municipalities to pay off debts using revenue generated by the infrastructure improvements created in the district.
Signs on Town Meeting Day
Officials billed the proposal as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform downtown Burlington, particularly given the city can only take out loans in this TIF district for another year. Voters seemed to agree, passing it with 62 percent of the vote.
At a Democratic watch party Tuesday night, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger celebrated the two bond votes, telling reporters that the approximately $50 million in spending will have long-lasting impacts. He took particular pride in the Main Street project.
“There's going to be an opportunity for protected bike lanes, for outdoor eating, for natural beauty that we haven't seen on Main Street in generations,” Weinberger said. “This is going to be a complete overhaul of that key part of our downtown.”
Mayor Miro Weinberger addresses the media Tuesday night
The mayor was less enthusiastic about the tax rate result. The proposal would have added $2.2 million into city coffers, helping to close the gap on a projected $7 million deficit driven largely by historically high inflation. But it would have cost the owner of a median-priced $380,000 home about $150 more in property taxes next year.
Weinberger said he suspects the upcoming fiscal year budget will be the “toughest” of any he’s had during his decade in office. He said he will do everything in his power to maintain services and avoid layoffs but warned that there would inevitably be “consequences.”
“We're gonna go back to the drawing board, roll up our sleeves, and we're gonna find a way through this,” he said.
Asked why he thought most voters opposed the increase, Weinberger blamed the reassessment, pointing to Ward 5. Voters there are typically a solid “yes” vote on financial questions, he said. But the reappraisal hit homeowners in that ward particularly hard, and its voters opposed the tax rate question by a 50-vote margin.
“Many Burlington residents have had to sit down at the dinner table and get out calculators and work on their household budgets,” Weinberger said. “And they want us doing the same thing with next year's city budget.”
Burlingtonians were receptive to the only non-money ballot item: A charter change proposal that would give up the city’s ability to regulate prostitution.
The change repeals an obscure part of the city charter that allows it to "to restrain and suppress houses of ill fame" and "to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith.” Opponents argued that the move would allow the illicit sex trade to flourish, while supporters said the language was archaic and offensive — and noted that prostitution would still be illegal under state law.
J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly braved the cold on Tuesday to hold a "Yes on 5" sign outside the Ward 8 polling place, Fletcher Free Library.
Oshiro-Brantly is a cofounder of the Ishtar Collective, an anti-sex-trafficking organization that advocates for safe working conditions for consensual sex workers.
"This charter is over 100 years old, and it is sexist," Oshiro-Brantly said. "So when we take this sexist language off, what we're saying is we're not going to settle for being treated as second-class citizens."
The legislature and governor will need to approve the change before it's enacted.
Courtney Lamdin and Derek Brouwer contributed reporting.