by Nat Frothingham
The Bridge: You’ve served 12 years on the Council, right?
Tom Golonka: It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t a City Council member. I started when I was 38; I’m close to 50 now. I’ve raised five kids. My youngest child, Kenzie, was born when I was a City Council member. She’s 11 and a half and a sixth grader at Main Street Middle School. My oldest daughter, Chloe, is soon to be a junior in college.
Just for the record: Jim Sheridan and Nancy Sherman each gave 12 years on the Council, as well. I think of it as an accomplishment. Life sometimes gets in the way. Spending those Wednesday nights away from home and after work, when you have a full-time job can be difficult. I understand why it’s difficult to serve more than a couple of terms.
The Bridge: Can you remember your first Council meeting?
Golonka: Nancy Wasserman and I were both sworn in at that meeting. Nancy Sherman, Jim Sheridan, Harold Garabedian and Riley Allen, along with Mayor Mary Hooper, made up the remaining members. All told, I have served with about 17 different council members over the past 12 years. Every one of them had a common commitment to the City of Montpelier. It takes a special kind of person to make that kind of commitment. I have tremendous respect for people who run for City Council. It takes a lot of time away from family and business. There’s a token stipend. But that’s not why people do it.
The Bridge: Were you facing the same problems then as now?
Golonka: Early on we were faced with the Scott construction issue. As you recall, we were faced with the city losing roughly $300,000 by an inadvertent mistake. That was one of our initial issues. We also had the rock slide on Elm Street. Later on, we had floods and the flood threat with tropical storm Irene. We were talking about District Heat and the Taylor Street project back then, as well.
The Bridge: What did you want to achieve when you started out?
Golonka: I’d come from a financial background. I think that’s helped me evaluate projects and proposals over the years. My focus has consistently been on fiscal responsibility and sustainability in the short and long run as it affects taxpayers. Whether it’s been the Taylor Street project, District Heat, debt service or infrastructure investment, I want to see the impacts on taxes and the city budget.
The Bridge: Is the city more efficient today than it was 12 years ago?
Golonka: Yes, it’s significantly more efficient. I think some residents take for granted the tremendous capabilities of city staff from the finance department, public works, fire and police to planning and the city manager’s office. They all seem to work well together to have a city that’s both transparent and extremely well thought of, both here and outside Montpelier.
I think that’s a credit to Bill (Fraser). The staff works well together. The municipal budget passes traditionally by a 75-percent vote. In this day and age, and in this state particularly, with our high tax rates, that’s extremely positive.
The Bridge: Back to my earlier question: Are the problems today the same or different?
Golonka: Taxes, housing, parking and economic development. They’re the four issues that are always brought up in Montpelier. We’ve made significant progress on each but I doubt they will ever be completely solved to everyone’s satisfaction. We have a limited amount of space and only a certain amount of dollars flowing into our community. But we’ve made some progress.
The Taylor Street project, though delayed, can be a transformational development project.
In contrast to the District Heat project, everyone will notice the Taylor Street project. It will be a gateway to the city. I’m excited about this. I understand the financial realities that have bogged us down at the moment but the effort will significantly transform downtown for generations to come. That’s why we’ve spent so much time on it. A toxic waste site turned into a core downtown asset.
The Bridge: As we move forward today, where do you see the opportunities?
Golonka: Over the last few years on the council, I’ve concentrated on regionalization efforts. Our opportunities in the future are going to depend on partnerships and regional projects. It’s difficult for a city the size of Montpelier to do everything we have done. We have 8,000 people, limited grand list growth and limited space. My focus over the past few years has been to help forge these regional relationships. I’m excited by the regional public safety effort currently underway. I think the Regional Public Safety Authority has the potential of professionalizing public safety to a level only seen in bigger cities.
The Bridge: How can the city increase its tax base or control its municipal spending?
Golonka: I think it’s vigilance. Maybe it’s one or two businesses here and there. Maybe it’s working with National Life or other regional partners on a housing project. Possibly it’s investing in infrastructure projects in parts of the city that are underserved. We can proactively run a water and sewer line into undeveloped areas to encourage expansion in locations we deem appropriate.
The Bridge: Is the city on the right or wrong track with its priorities?
Golonka: I think we’re on the right track. We have countless numbers of volunteers. Our volunteer city boards get a tremendous response in the community. Of course there’s always room for improvement.
The Bridge: I hear that the city has trouble getting things done. How can we change this?
Golonka: I do struggle with that question and, at times, think we take too long to implement projects. Sometimes we take too long with committees and discussions without actually implementing change. But the committees usually bring more people into the dialogue and strengthen the ultimate project.
The Bridge: Do you think the city could be run more efficiently?
Golonka: Anyone can be more efficient. As I’ve said, regionalize. Work with local partners — whether it’s the schools, other municipalities or non-profits. We do our best work when we do partner. I’d expand on that outreach.
The Bridge: Now that you’re off the council, you must be facing a lot of free time.
Golonka: I do my best when I’m involved. I’m currently focusing on things that integrate my business career in financial planning and investments with my volunteer work. I’m actively involved as chair of the Vermont State Pension Board, Chair of the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority and trustee of Central Vermont Medical Center. In addition, my wife and I are active supporters of our children in sports and other activities, which more than fills in the time gained.