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After Costly Reassessment, Burlington Asks Voters to Approve More City Debt

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Published November 17, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Jessica Oski has never complained about paying her Burlington property tax bill. A resident of the city's South End since 2004, Oski says she takes pride in knowing that her money supports schools and city services. She has happily cast ballots in favor of every budget and every special bond.

Until now.

Two multimillion-dollar city spending plans are on the ballot for a December 7 special election, and Oski has already voted against one of them, which would, if passed, raise taxes. Oski's taxes went up after the city's recent reassessment; nearly nine out of 10 single-family homeowners will pay more. Between that and an anticipated bond to finance a new high school, Oski says she can't stomach another hike for spending that she thinks can wait.

"I am fatigued as a taxpayer," said Oski, a lobbyist who once represented the City of Burlington at the Statehouse. "I don't want to vote on these one by one and then, in the end, we're all paying $100 more a month. It can't be death by a million cuts."

Oski voted no to borrowing $40 million for capital projects such as road and sidewalk repairs. The second bond would finance $20 million in upgrades to support the city's goal of eliminating its use of fossil fuels by 2030, an initiative Oski supports. She voted for that bond, even though it could result in higher electric rates in the future.

With Oski and other taxpayers feeling the pinch, the onus now falls on Mayor Miro Weinberger and other city officials to convince voters — a two-thirds majority for the capital bond — that this money is worth spending, and now. They're running out of time: The city mailed ballots in late October to 24,552 registered voters, and nearly 3,800 have already returned them.

"There's no doubt that the high level of property taxes that Burlingtonians pay is on people's minds right now," Weinberger said, adding that he thinks taxpayers would get a lot from the bonds, despite the cost. "I hope people see it through that lens as they weigh this decision."

Burlington's capital projects bond would continue a 10-year plan that Weinberger introduced in 2016 to address the city's failing infrastructure. That November, voters approved a $27.5 million bond that helped fix 14 miles of sidewalks, rehab seven miles of the bike path and insulate city buildings to make them more efficient.

This year's bond would earmark $10 million for Memorial Auditorium, a historic downtown building that closed in 2016 due to serious structural deficiencies. If the bond passed, Weinberger would ask the city council to approve using funds to make the city building usable, such as by installing new heating and sprinkler systems. Community members and event promoter Higher Ground, which had proposed operating an event space there before the pandemic hit, would be invited to participate, the mayor's office said.

The remaining $30 million would be paired with $111 million from federal and state transportation grants, pandemic recovery funds, and city money to funnel $141 million into capital needs. The total includes $24.3 million from the federal infrastructure bill, though Weinberger conceded that number is an "aspirational estimate."

The exact projects may change, but Weinberger said the city plans to use the cash to replace three aging fire trucks and snowplows, complete renovations to the bike path, plant more trees along city streets, replace crumbling sidewalks, and improve ventilation in city buildings. If passed, the owner of a median-priced home in the city — about $379,100 — would pay incrementally higher taxes over 20 years, peaking at roughly $13 more per month in 2025.

"People should know [these aren't] fancy, discretionary, vanity projects," Weinberger said. "These are core public infrastructure needs."

The timing, however, is discretionary. The special election will cost the city $125,000, while adding the bonds to the Town Meeting Day ballot in March would have cost nothing.

Calling for a costly special election is a complete 180 for Weinberger. Last year, he issued his first-ever veto to block a ballot item about ranked-choice voting. Among his reasons? It would have cost $45,000 to print a local ballot for the November 2020 general election, "wasteful" spending during a pandemic, Weinberger said at the time. He also happened to oppose the voting system.

Weinberger says a special ballot is justified this time around. There's no guarantee that current low interest rates will hold until March. Further, the pandemic has already set the city's planning back a year, Weinberger said, and he wants projects that are ready to start when construction season begins. Passing a ballot item now would also improve the city's chance of getting more federal funds, he added.

City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) doesn't feel the same sense of urgency. She was the only councilor who voted against putting the capital bond on the special election ballot and is doubtful the city would lose an entire construction season by waiting three months to vote. The ongoing labor shortage, Shannon added, may hamper the city's timeline regardless.

She's also concerned about the unknown price tag for a new high school. In 2018, Burlington voters approved a $70 million bond to renovate the campus, but the school district abandoned those plans in May after carcinogenic chemicals were detected in the school.

School commissioners now want voters to consider a bond in November 2022 for a new high school and technical center — which is certain to cost substantially more. The city and school district share a debt limit, and Shannon said she worries that they could exceed it, though Weinberger has assured the public that won't happen.

The city and school's total debt can't exceed 4.25 percent of the value of all taxable property in the city. The previously approved $70 million school bond would have made the combined debt equal to 3.27 percent of the value of the tax base in 2026, city calculations show. The new school's price tag is unknown, but Katherine Schad, the city's chief administrative officer, said the district "could easily take on substantial additional debt" without exceeding the limit.

"Any taxpayer that's voting on [the capital bond] should be able to make a decision on this at least at the same time that we're making the ask for the school bond, not ahead of it — and preferably after it," Shannon said.

She is supporting the net-zero bond, however, because officials say it would neither raise taxes nor impact the shared debt capacity. The bond is debt, but it would generate revenue to pay back a large chunk of what's owed. That's because the proceeds would allow the Burlington Electric Department to double the funds allotted to its Green Stimulus program, which offers customer rebates on home appliances, electric bicycles, heat pumps and other items. Those customers would theoretically use more electricity, giving the utility more cash to pay down its debt.

Additionally, the department will pay off another loan in 2025, freeing up about $700,000 a year to put toward the new debt without raising rates. The utility's general manager, Darren Springer, said there may be some "upward pressure" on rates as the bond matures, but he anticipates only a 1 percent rate increase, if any, for customers at that point.

Higher electric bills may be tough for some customers to swallow, considering that the utility hiked rates by 7.5 percent this year — the first increase since 2009. Chris Behr, who has lived in the New North End since 1965, said between the reappraisal, the cost of electricity and higher water bills this year, he feels he's getting priced out. He said the city promises to keep taxes low but then actually raises them by approving special bonds.

"The word 'sneaky' comes to mind," Behr said, noting that he and his wife had already voted against both ballot items.

"When you look at the plans that the city has ... we're in for a really rough road," he said. "I don't know how many Burlingtonians are gonna be able to live in this town."

Springer hopes he can convince residents of the net-zero bond's importance. Beyond generating revenue, the money would upgrade the electric grid to accommodate higher loads, maintain the city's power generation plants, and install electric vehicle charging stations. All told, passing the bond could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 47,000 tons — the equivalent of not using about 100,000 barrels of oil, Springer said.

"I think we're ahead of the curve here in Burlington," Springer said. "At the end of the day, we want to help our customers ... reduce their own energy use, reduce their own fossil fuel use and help us move as a community towards electrification. It would be incredibly challenging to try to make that happen without the revenue bond."

City Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) has already cast his ballot in support of both bonds. He says not investing would be costlier in the long run: The city would fall behind on its climate goals, and sidewalks and streets would continue to deteriorate.

Hanson acknowledged that the reassessment was a big hit for many. But he said a resolution that councilors approved unanimously last week lays the framework for addressing inequities in the city's tax system that would help lower-income residents.

"That's the solution. The solution isn't to let our infrastructure crumble," Hanson said, adding that the capital bond is "a necessary investment, even though it is hard to shoulder those costs."

Greg Hostetler agrees. The Old North End resident is a member of the Burlington Walk/Bike Council, a volunteer group that advises the city on non-vehicular transportation projects. Hostetler, who rents and doesn't own a car, supports the bond because he regularly traverses sidewalks that flood and freeze in the winter. He was also pleased that the plan would help build a "shared-use path" for pedestrians and bikers along Intervale Road.

"We all have to ask ... if these investments are going to be worth it," he said, "and I think they will be."

Oski, the South End resident, said the city can afford to wait. She was already walloped with a $200-a-month property tax increase and is irked that the city wants to fix sidewalks when Burlington students are attending high school in a former Macy's store. She's thought about leaving the city she loves.

"A bond in this moment is the issue," Oski said.

The special election comes at a fortuitous moment for her son: He turned 18 last week. And just in time, he registered to vote so he could say no to the capital bond.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Bond Too Far?"