MONTPELIER — The executive director of the Montpelier Development Corp. has stepped down after fewer than two months officially on the job.
Lisa M. Maxwell, 57, of Lake Worth, Florida, was appointed by the MDC board of directors in July, but only started in November, allowing her time to relocate to Montpelier.
In a letter to the City Council dated Dec. 30, however, Maxwell said she was leaving to return to Florida to handle a family crisis.
Maxwell is the third executive director to step down from the position in the three years the MDC has been in operation. The City Council made a five-year commitment to fund the MDC to the tune of $100,000 a year to promote economic development in the city.
Maxwell succeeded Laura Gebhart, who resigned in May after a year in the position to take a college field hockey coaching position in Rhode Island. Joe Evans, the MDC’s first executive director, resigned in January 2018 due to health reasons. Evans only served nine months but was actually in Montpelier a few of those months.
News of Maxwell’s departure came up at a meeting of the City Council on Thursday, where councilors were finalizing the proposed fiscal year 2020-21 city and school budgets. On Town Meeting Day, voters will be asked to approve a $14.9 million municipal budget that includes $100,000 for MDC.
A week ago, Councilor Conor Casey said he wanted to hear about progress on economic development from MDC board members before the agreeing to the $100,000.
In response, Bill Kaplan, chairman of the MDC board of directors, attended Thursday’s council meeting.
In a letter to the council, and reiterated at Thursday’s meeting, Kaplan said the MDC proposed adopting a “project management structure,” where the board would appoint “specialist” project managers with skills for specific development projects rather than having an executive director.
Casey asked whether there were any savings or surplus funds in the current budget given that Maxwell left so soon.
Kaplan said that after salary and benefits, as well as rented office space in the city, there was little money left over, although funds are held in reserve for when a project emerged.
Other councilors, Dona Bate, Lauren Hierl, Jack McCullough and newly appointed Councilor Dan Richardson – who replaces Ashley Hill who stepped down last month for personal reasons – also raised questions about the funds MDC had spent.
“Can you tell us how much cash you have on hand, as a baseline ... and what you anticipate spending on project managers in the coming year?” McCullough pressed.
“The answer is: I don’t know,” Kaplan replied, noting MDC is a private nonprofit that is not required to reveal its accounting, despite receiving public funds. Kaplan said he would have to discuss the request with the MDC board.
While the MDC proposed to use project managers instead of an executive director, Casey suggested cutting $25,000 from the MDC budget and putting the funds into the Capital Improvement Program. Despite a second for his motion, it failed on a 4-2 vote.
Anticipating that the MDC had a “year’s worth of vacancy savings,” McCullough proposed postponing any new funding for a year, until FY 2022-23.
Local Realtor Tim Heney, also a MDC board member, said there was “nowhere near a year’s reserves,” adding that consultants and other people were hired by the MDC board to do work in the absence of an executive director. Heney pointed to a recent “surge” in development activity that MDC had supported and assisted.
Among the successes, MDC facilitated the Caledonia Spirits plant on Barre Street, and helped establish a Tax Incremental Financing district. Kaplan said MDC also had been talking to the state about the potential for development in state parking lots in “the pit” between State and Court streets, and along the Winooski riverfront.
McCullough also noted MDC’s work on the public parking garage $10.5 million bond issue put before voters in November 2018. The bond passed, however, the project is mired in legal challenges.
Councilor Glen Coburn Hutchison said he felt bound by the council’s five-year commitment to funding MDC, despite McCullough’s request to postpone funding for a year.
When it came to voting for the budget as a whole, Councilor Lauren Hierl proposed attaching a condition that the MDC provide the council with a financial statement and budget. The motion was amended by McCullough to also include MDC financial information from previous years.
On a vote, the budget passed unanimously and was unchanged from last week’s first public hearing.
The warning for Town Meeting Day was amended to include a late ballot request from Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice, seeking $23,500.
The Capital City can expect a municipal property tax rate increase of 4.5% in fiscal year 2020-21 that is due, almost entirely, to a 25% increase in health care and workers compensation insurance costs.
It will require an increase of 5.1 cents on the property tax rate to raise $10.3 million to maintain city services, an increase of $492,648, or 4.1%, in spending on the current year. It would mean a tax bill increase of $99 a year on a home worth $200,000.
The Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District is projecting a $25.3 million budget for fiscal year 2020-21, an increase of 4.76%.
The final figure remains unclear due to the uncertainty over what the state would pay per equalized pupil and the statewide dollar yield and reductions in the Common Level of Appraisal in Montpelier (but up in Roxbury). More complete figures will be available nearer to Town Meeting Day, March 3, when the state can finalize funding formulas.
The biggest budget increases in the schools will be salaries, and a 12.9% increase in a health reimbursement arrangement for faculty and staff, as well as higher technical education costs.
Based on conservative projections, the district predicts the school property tax rate in Montpelier would be $1.730. It would mean the school tax on a property worth $200,000 would increase by $169 on the current year, in part because Montpelier’s common level of appraisal is low, 89.6%.
In Roxbury, the school tax rate would be about $1.610. It would mean the school tax on a property worth $200,000 would fall by $188 on the current year because the common level of appraisal is high, at 97.6%.
Based on the projections, the school district is expecting equalized per pupil spending to be about $16,967 next year.