The Montpelier City Council holds the second of two budget hearings tonight, Jan. 20, at 6:30 p.m. in a hybrid meeting. The hearing focuses on four separate bond votes totaling $27 million, and a budget that increases property taxes by 6.8%, or $184 on an average $228,000 home. Councilors will approve the final budget tonight, which is up for vote on Town Meeting Day, March 1, 2022.
However, as City Manager William Fraser pointed out in an email interview, “the overall rate (city/school/ballot items, etc.) will only increase 1.1%, which is the lowest since 2016.”
The $16,139,422 budget represents an increase of $1,432,828, or 9.74% in expenses over the prior year.
One of the issues residents brought up during the Jan. 12 budget hearing is a $1.5 million bond vote for the purchase of the former Elks Club property on Route 2 in Montpelier. If purchased, the property is slated for recreational use, including trails, a new recreational facility (currently projected at costing $6 million), nordic skiing, and more. During the meeting, Fraser told councilors several times that the city may actually need another $500,000 for the purchase. At approximately 10:30 p.m., four hours after the meeting started, the council went into executive session; after returning, they voted to authorize Fraser to pursue the “purchase process of the country club property based on parameters we discussed in executive session.”
Since then, Fraser said, “I have spoken with the land owner and we may sign a purchase-and-sale agreement contingent on passage of the bond.”
“Two million [dollars] for the Elks club … seems like an awful lot of money for the residents of Montpelier to be putting forth for a recreation area,” said resident Jody Petterson. “I would like to see …housing … for people to be able to move to our city and … add to our tax base. I would like to see a lot of that land go to a good developer to develop.”
The remaining bond vote projects did not garner much discussion, but they included over $9 million for infrastructure projects throughout the city, including:
An overhaul of East State Street that includes complete reconstruction from the corner of State and Main to College Street. This will include new water and sewer lines installed underground; a rebuild of the surface; and correction of an ongoing sewer overflow problem.
$1.8 million for an array of smaller infrastructure improvements, including $600,000 for Confluence park, which matches private funds and grants; $550,000 for Phase 1 of the Main Street Corridor Plan; $250,000 for street lighting upgrades and converting downtown to LED lighting; $250,000 for a pellet heating system at the Department of Public Works, replacing the oil-fueled system; and $165,000 for Marvin Street slope failure.
“It’s a very comprehensive project. It will probably take a couple years to complete given its complexity and size,” Fraser said during the budget hearing. Debt payments for the infrastructure projects are split between the general budget (paid for through property taxes) and the water and sewer fund (paid for through usage fees).
A bond vote for a $16.4 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade was not discussed by residents at the Jan. 12 hearing.
While $27 million in bonds did not generate much discussion, residents at the Jan. 10 hearing did talk about a $30,000 line item to fund payments to committee volunteers who may otherwise not be able to participate. Recommended by the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee, the money would pay $50 per meeting to people who request it, no questions asked. The idea is for parents or those struggling to make ends meet to be able to participate in city government, “to help us get a broader group of people,” Fraser said.
Phyllis Rubenstein, who said she supports the purchase of the Elks Club property, also said she has served on the Montpelier Conservation Commission for three years, and “Ifor one would not request any money. At the Montpelier Conservation Commission there are people with kids, and it’s a struggle and the kids are in the background at the Zoom meeting. I understand the goal is to increase diversity. I just question if this is the right way to do it.”
Didi Brush wanted to know how the city will measure increased participation based on the new funding.
Councilor Jay Ericson said use of the stipend “would be a no-questions-asked process where folks, if they were involved in a committee, could request the funds. It would not be a blanket ‘everyone who attends the meeting would get a stipend.’ The city does not want to be in the business of trying to verify income … we want to expand engagement with our community here.”
Tonight’s budget hearing starts at 6:30 p.m. The agenda includes details about logging into the Zoom meeting, and can be found here: https://www.montpelier-vt.org/129/Agendas-Minutes