In Annual Address, Weinberger Lays Framework for Burlington's Pandemic Recovery | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » News

In Annual Address, Weinberger Lays Framework for Burlington's Pandemic Recovery


Published April 4, 2022 at 10:02 p.m.

Mayor Miro Weinberger - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger
On Monday, during his first in-person state of the city address in three years, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger outlined his plans for helping the city to recover from the coronavirus pandemic by investing in housing, public infrastructure and other initiatives.

The wide-ranging speech, the mayor’s 11th in office, was delivered to a receptive and largely unmasked crowd at City Hall. Unlike the sterile Zoom speeches of the last two years, Weinberger’s address Monday night was punctuated with moments of applause — and only one interruption, from a disgruntled resident who then exited the auditorium.

In total, the gathering felt more like a homecoming after months of alternating between remote and in-person meetings. Officials of all political stripes showed up early and lingered after the night’s proceedings had concluded. Department heads assembled in the seats behind the mayor's lectern.

Weinberger took a confident tone in describing how the city operated through the worst of the pandemic by providing assistance to vulnerable people and struggling businesses. But he said the city has lost traction in a number of areas.

“We are going to have to earn our way back to the general prosperity much of this community was experiencing before the pandemic,” Weinberger said. “We are going to have to call on the same compassion, collaboration and innovation that we found in ourselves collectively to make it through the pandemic to forge a broad, sustained community revival.”

Weinberger went on to describe plans to create a new city department focused on economic recovery. He plans to ask the council to use $500,000 of the city’s coronavirus relief funds to create a revolving loan fund to provide financial assistance for businesses, including start-ups and companies owned by Black, Indigenous and people of color.

When the pandemic began, city staff pivoted from their normal jobs to help businesses get federal loans and awarded grants to BIPOC-owned businesses. The work has continued under the leadership of Church Street Marketplace director Kara Alnasrawi, who took on the additional title of “director of economic recovery.” Creating a new department, which is yet to be named, will "make permanent this key business support innovation," the mayor said.

Weinberger didn’t divulge how much creating the new department would cost but said the proposal would be included in the city budget that councilors will consider in June.
The mayor also touched on the housing crisis, which has worsened during the pandemic. The city must create new homes, Weinberger said, and committed to building 1,250 over the next five years. He said the city’s planning department will launch a new housing dashboard this month to track the city’s progress.

And Weinberger reiterated his goal to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2024, a promise first outlined in a 10-point housing plan he released late last year. He also introduced Sarah Russell, the city’s new special assistant to end homelessness, to a round of applause.

Capital projects will also play a role in the city’s recovery. Weinberger said that the public will see progress on both the Moran Frame project and at CityPlace Burlington.
After years of false starts, CityPlace developers promised to begin construction on the 10-story mixed-use project this year. A development agreement with the city requires the developers to break ground by September or pay the cost of reconnecting St. Paul and Pine streets to the city grid. The former mall, which was demolished in 2018, has impeded traffic flow downtown for decades.

“If the developer does not meet their committed timeline, we will again hold them accountable,” Weinberger said.

“Thank god!” a lone voice in the crowd responded.

The mayor also touched on policing and racial justice, the focus of last year’s state of the city address. He pledged to continue the city’s efforts to eliminate racial disparities in homeownership and health outcomes and promised that staff in the city’s Office of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging would be safe from impending budget cuts.
Weinberger didn’t directly address the fact that most of the department’s leadership team has resigned — including former director Tyeastia Green — but he did say that a “rebuilt team” would help the city continue its racial justice work.

On policing, Weinberger said he and acting Chief Jon Murad will present a plan in the next month to restaff the dwindling department with “targeted financial incentives” and “investments in recruitment capacity,” apparently in addition to the $850,000 councilors allotted for retention and recruitment bonuses last fall.

Officers have steadily left the department since the council voted in June 2020 to reduce its size by 30 percent through attrition. Councilors have since authorized the hiring of more officers.

The administration will also propose hiring additional community support liaisons, unarmed civilians who respond to certain calls for service, in the next budget. The city currently employs three “CSLs.”

Weinberger ended his speech with words of support for the people of Ukraine, millions of whom have fled their country to escape the ongoing war with Russia. He said Burlington is prepared to help resettle refugees, as it has done with those fleeing other conflicts over the years.

“We will be ready because, despite the incredible challenges of the past two years, the state of our city remains strong,” he said. “It is getting stronger every day as we work to recover from the pandemic’s setbacks.”
City Council President Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • City Council President Karen Paul (D-Ward 6)
Also Monday, the eight city councilors elected on Town Meeting Day were officially sworn into office. The crop includes newcomers Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2), Ben Traverse (D-Ward 5) and Ali House (P-Ward 8) who replace now-former councilors Max Tracy, Chip Mason and Jane Stromberg, respectively.

The newly formed council unanimously voted Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) as council president. Paul said she hopes councilors can “rise above the rhetoric” in debates, many of which have been deeply partisan during the last two years. She pledged to be fair, transparent and responsive in the role.

The meeting ended with appointing three councilors to the body’s Board of Finance: Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) and Joe Magee (P-Ward 3). Paul congratulated her peers after they cast the night’s second unanimous vote.

“It’s always wonderful to start out the year like this,” she said.

Corrections, April 5, 2022: A previous version of this story misreported the number of years since the last in-person speech, the number of such addresses Weinberger has given, and the amount of money the council appropriated for recruitment and retention bonuses.