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Capital City
Council is all ears, no 'shears' on $16.1M budget

MONTPELIER — With one public hearing down and one public hearing to go, city councilors haven’t hinted they are at all interested in cutting a $16.1 million budget that would boost spending for the day-to-day operation of the city and add 8.1 cents to the tax rate — a 6.8% increase.

They also appear poised to ask voters to approve more than $27 million in bond issues — including one they were told would likely cost $500,000 more than the previous $1.5 million estimate.

The budget and the bond issues were the subject of the first of two public hearings Wednesday night as a process that began with councilors adding $150,000 to an administrative budget proposal last month lurched closer to next week’s finish line.

On a night when councilors learned a hot-off-the-presses audit revealed the city carried an unrestricted fund balance of $1.6 million into the fiscal year that started last July, they heard from residents who expressed mixed opinions about the budget and one of the bond issues.

Fresh questions surfaced about the council’s decision to add $100,000 to the budget to cover the cost of what was characterized as an “energy coordinator” last month, but lacked that clarity Wednesday night.

City Manager Bill Fraser said the money could still be spent on a full-time position, but left open the door that a consultant could be retained to help the city achieve its “net zero” goals by 2030.

Some questioned the necessity of the new expense, while one noted funding for a similar position was approved by the council in 2018, but never filled.

Fraser has acknowledged money was spent in a different way to address a separate staffing need that surfaced at the time.

Some residents also questioned the council’s decision to add $30,000 to the budget last month to offer stipends to those serving on volunteer boards and committees with hope of making public service more accessible to those for whom child care might be an obstacle.

That line item is the closest thing to a cut the council has made during deliberations that saw the budget’s bottom line swell from $15.9 million to $16.1 million and the projected tax rate increase needed to pay for it increase from 6.4 cents to 8.1 cents. The council was asked by members of the Social and Economic Development Committee to add $42,000 for the committee stipends and agreed to start with $30,000.

Councilors were told those increases add up and should be considered carefully in light of a tax rate increase that would add $81 in taxes for every $100,000 in assessed value. Barring any adjustments, the tax bill for a home assessed at $250,000 would increase by just over $200 and the bill for a home assessed at $300,000 would go up by nearly $245.

Fraser noted most, but not all, of that increase is tied to an operating budget that includes more than $1.4 million in new spending.

According to Fraser’s estimates, the budget accounts for 7.4 cents of the 8.1 cent increase, while the balance is tied to the $45,225 increase reflected in the Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s $365,596 funding request, and Montpelier’s $14,100 share of the $30,000 budget for the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority.

Councilors, who in recent weeks have heard some buckling under the burden of what they claim is an already too-high tax rate, said the fact that other costs are rising isn’t lost on them.

“I understand, and I really feel the concerns that I’ve heard about increasing taxes right now, but this is where I’m landing for now,” Councilor Lauren Hierl said.

Hierl suggested the city has been operating in “crisis mode” and should position itself to leverage pandemic-related federal funding to make what she and Councilor Jack McCullough both described as “generational investments.”

Like Hierl, McCullough said he would wait to see what next week’s public hearing brings, but wasn’t inclined to propose any changes Wednesday night.

“I’m satisfied with where we’re at for right now,” he said.

Of the bond issues — there are four — the council appears ready to ask voters to support only one generated substantive discussion and not because Fraser warned the cost of acquiring the former Elks Club property — golf course and all — likely would climb from $1.5 million to $2 million.

Residents who spoke generally liked the idea of acquiring the property — some for its recreational potential, others for housing possibilities and at least one potential use needn’t be pitted against the other.

“We can have both,” Peter Kelman said.

Plans to completely reconstruct East State Street from Main to College streets at a cost of $7.2 million was barely discussed, and if Fraser hadn’t flagged it in his overview a $1.8 million bond to pay for projects ranging from developing Confluence Park to upgrading the intersection of Main and Barre streets — wouldn’t have been mentioned at all.

But for odors emanating from the city’s wastewater plan, the same is likely true of a $16.4 million upgrade that would, among other things, address that nagging problem.

Councilors didn’t delve too deeply into an audit that showed the city started the last fiscal year with an unrestricted fund balance of just over $1.4 million and ended it with $1.6 million in unrestricted cash reserves. The latter figure was after diverting just over $200,000 of a $315,000 operating surplus to cover a revenue shortfall in the parking fund.

The council agreed to revisit the audit at next week’s meeting, which also will feature the second and final public hearing on the budget and the bond issues. Following the conclusion of that public hearing the council is scheduled to adopt the budget they will ask voters to approve and finalize the warning for the March 1 elections.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Elyssa Lynds, 9, left, and siblings Aubree, 8, and Parker Potvin, 6, slide down a hill in the Elmwood Cemetery in Barre on Thursday.

January joy


Local
editor's pick
Montpelier City Council
Ericson won't seek reelection to District 3 seat

MONTPELIER — Three sitting city councilors who — one of them appointed to fill a District 3 vacancy late last year — publicly announced their re-election plans Wednesday night, while a fourth — Jay Ericson — confirmed he won’t be seeking a second two-year term.

Ericson’s announcement came near the end of a meeting that kicked off hours earlier when council members Dona Bate, Conor Casey and Jennifer Morton all indicated they would join Mayor Anne Watson on the campaign trail in the run-up to Town Meeting Day.

As planned, Watson, who recently gave birth to her first son, missed the meeting that was run by Councilor Jack McCullough.

Bate started the string of announcements indicating her plans to run for what would be a fifth consecutive two-year term in District 1.

Bate’s announcement was quickly followed by Casey’s, who confirmed he will run for what would be his third term representing voters in District 2.

Cue Morton, who was appointed in September to fill the District 3 vacancy created by Dan Richardson’s mid-term resignation. That appointment expires on March 1 and Morton said she’ll run for the right to serve what would have been the final year of Richardson’s two-year term.

Ericson, whose first District 3 term expires in March, said nothing about his political plans and by the time he did, councilors were readying to go into a meeting-ending executive session and several had just expressed appreciation for his service.

He confirmed he won’t run for a second term.

Though all of the seats — including Watson’s as mayor — are up for grabs, Ericson’s decision guarantees the seven-member council will welcome at least one new member when it meets after the March elections.

There has been recent interest in representing District 3. Morton and three others — Cary Brown, Alice Goltz and Gene Leon — applied to fill the vacancy created by Richardson’s resignation. Two of those three — Goltz and Leon — have run for council before.

Richardson defeated Goltz a year ago, and Leon finished runner-up in the three-way race that Ericson won two years ago.

Leon, who is an alternate to the Development Review Board, was a virtual participant in Wednesday night’s meeting.

Prospective candidates have until Jan. 24 to file nominating petitions with City Clerk John Odum, though collecting signatures may not be necessary based on legislation that has cleared the Senate, received a preliminary thumbs up from the House Government Operations Committee and is expected to pass the House this week.

That will make it easier and, lawmakers suggest, safer for candidates to run for local office amid a current surge in COVID-19 cases that has councilors thinking about a return to fully remote meetings after they finalize the ballot for the city’s annual elections next week.

Though the Town Meeting Day warning will be finalized next week, councilors — as expected — reluctantly agreed to abandon plans to again mail ballots to all active registered voters this year.

Two days after the Roxbury Select Board decided not to permit the Montpelier-Roxbury Public School District to send its ballots to all voters, Odum said the council could still automatically mail municipal ballots, while noting that might not be wise.

“I hate to say this because I’m such a fan of the mail-in voting, but my advice is to not go that route,” Odum said. “People will be too confused.”

That sentiment was shared by others on the council who feared if voters received the city’s ballot in the mail, some — perhaps many — might not know that ballots for the school district, as well as the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority and the Central Vermont Career Center, would either have to be requested, or voted in person on Town Meeting Day.

“I never thought I’d be voting against all mail-in voting,” Casey said, conceding separating municipal and school ballots would be “unwieldy” and potentially drive down turnout for the school’s election — even if a brightly colored reminder was included in the city ballot.

Resident Peter Kelman wasn’t so sure.

Kelman said he would appreciate automatically receiving the city ballot in the mail along with a note to request the three others or vote at the polls March 1.

“I don’t think that’s too confusing,” he said.

Councilors weren’t willing to take that chance and favored sending out postcards to all registered voters encouraging them to request absentee ballots.

Except for the postcards, City Manager Bill Fraser noted that should have a familiar feel to Capital City voters.

“The way we’re recommending doing it, outside of last year, is the way we’ve been doing it forever,” he said.

Last year a single ballot — including all city and school questions — was mailed to all voters because of concerns associated with the pandemic.

This year, Roxbury’s consent was required with respect to the school ballot and the select board there balked at the prospect. Citing concerns no one would request the ballot for the Central Vermont Career Center, the Roxbury board agreed to send out postcards encouraging voters to request absentee ballots at its Monday meeting.

The career center ballot will only be available upon request, or at the polls in the 18 towns that will be asked to consider the creation of a new school district and the election of a new school board March 1. Montpelier and Roxbury are two of those towns.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local
editor's pick
Waterbury
New tenant may be on the horizon for train station

WATERBURY — There’s a glimmer of news on the horizon for a possible new tenant for the Waterbury Train Station.

Leaders from the nonprofit economic development organization, Revitalizing Waterbury, which owns the historic station, on Monday night told the Waterbury Select Board that last week they signed a letter of intent with a potential new tenant to lease space that’s sat empty since March 2020.

Asked about specifics later, RW board Chair Theresa Wood said that a lease is being drafted. “We are hopeful for a summer 2022 opening after building modifications to suit the new prospective tenant, she said.

The identity of the tenant so far is confidential, Wood said. “It is a business that will be open to the public; however, we won’t be making any further announcement until a lease is signed.”

Executive Director Karen Nevin said she hoped to share more details soon. “We are excited to be moving forward and we will share the news when it can become public.”

The train station currently is in use with twice-daily Amtrak passenger train service which returned to Vermont in July.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, not only did rain service halt, but Keurig Dr. Pepper closed the popular Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Cafe and Visitors Center that occupied most of the building. Last January, Keurig announced that the cafe would not reopen as the company returned to more regular operations when pandemic restrictions eased.

The announcement was a blow for downtown Waterbury where the station and the cafe were a hub attracting thousands of people each year including local residents, downtown workers and tourists.

Keurig continues to pay rent on the former cafe space, however, under a 20-year lease that ends in 2026, Nevin said. A commitment from a new tenant would allow for that to be handed off to the business that would occupy the space going forward, she said.

Nevin and Wood attended the meeting Monday as part of the select board’s work to prepare the 2022 budget that will be presented to voters on Town Meeting Day on March 1. Revitalizing Waterbury receives funding from the town annually for beautification projects, marketing and economic development.

The organization, which has three paid staff and numerous volunteers, is seeking a 3% funding increase from the town this year from just over $53,000 to $54,765. Most of the increase would be directed to contracting for help with seasonal downtown beautification such as caring for hanging flower baskets and hanging and taking down holiday decorations, tasks until now done by volunteers. “Someone else is going to be climbing those ladders,” Nevin said.

The select board is meeting weekly this month to review budget requests with the aim to approve the final version that voters will see on March 1. On Monday, the board heard from individuals representing spending categories in the budget including representatives of the Mad River Resource Management Alliance, the Waterbury Area Senior Center along with town Recreation Director Nick Nadeau and Fire Chief Gary Dillon. Next week’s meeting will cover the Planning and Zoning Department and the Highway Department. Town Manager Bill Shepeluk said he has met with Library Commissioners to incorporate their input.

Shepeluk said he hopes to have a draft budget with input from all departments to possibly wrap up by Jan. 24.

The meeting ended with a lengthy discussion of a proposal to merge the Edward Farrar Utility District into town government including steps to address debt the Ice Center holds with a loan fund the utility district oversees.

Waterbury Select Board meetings are recorded and available on orcamedia.net for viewing.


Rail

“Democracy hinges on the election process and voting cannot be done effectively without an educated electorate.”

Editorial, A4

Target practice

The Spaulding girls hockey team leaves nothing to chance during an 8-0 victory over Harwood. B1


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