Winter is coming and along with it the issues the unsheltered face in cold weather and the complexities of keeping the city’s roads and sidewalks passable were both discussed at the Oct. 26 Montpelier City Council meeting, along with a proposal to increase property taxes a minimum of 8.2% in the upcoming budget, should the council choose to tie the budget to the Consumer Price Index.
City Considers Bringing Back the Guertin Shelter
City councilors are considering returning the Guertin shelter — a much disputed space where the unhoused congregated in Montpelier last winter — after hearing from Dan Towle of Parker Advisors, contracted to provide a homelessness needs assessment and action plan for the Homelessness Task Force, and Dawn Little, a street outreach worker from Good Samaritan Haven.
The state of Vermont abruptly terminated funding for winter housing, Towle said, and local agencies are struggling to provide staffed overnight winter shelter. In Montpelier, the overflow shelter at Christ Church may not exist this winter because of the lack of qualified staff, he added.
Little estimates that currently there are three dozen unhoused people in Montpelier, although she expects this number to decrease as people move to escape the cold weather. Towle, Little, and the Homelessness Task Force therefore felt compelled to develop a plan for a daytime, covered, winter gathering space where people could socialize, stay dry, and get help if needed. They proposed that the Guertin parklet be covered and a portable potty set up, possibly in the grass area behind The Drawing Board.
“We don’t really have any other good options at this time,” Little said.
Based on prior experience, the council agreed that location is critical to the success of short-term support. Confluence Park, the transit center, and the location of the former Guertin Park, all heavily trafficked by pedestrians, are locations that trigger problematic interactions, Little said.
The issues that caused the city to remove the Guertin shelter — trash, unsafe behavior, and difficult interactions — will occur again, according to Little and Towle. Little noted that as long as inadequate mental health and treatment support are inadequate “there will be behavior.”
“There is an increased level of danger outside. … There are more people coming in from outside, passing through, that we do not know. They have an increased level of frustration and desperation. Bears have driven people out of settled camps in the woods. There is less emergency housing available in cold weather.”
Working with people in a congregate setting is cost effective, safer, and efficient, she said.
In its FY23 budget, the city allocated $425,000 to address the needs of the unhoused, including developing a permanent resource in the community.
Councilor Jack McCullough expressed concerns that any money spent for something that is temporary, such as weatherizing the Guertin parklet, is money that will not be available for something permanent. Councilor Dona Bate, as well as Towle, both supported investing in inexpensive shelter spaces such as the pods or pallet shelters that are used in Burlington and St. Johnsbury.
The council approved the Homelessness Task Force to explore options with city staff to develop a short-term, covered day shelter in an appropriate location, and to work on medium- and long-term solutions.
Property Taxes: Automatically Increase 8.2%?
The fiscal year 2024 budget may increase at least 8.2%, according to Kelly Murphy, finance director and assistant city manager. Murphy recommended budget guidance that includes an automatic increase connected to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) — a measure of inflation — currently projected at 8.2%.This figure is the proposed target property tax increase in the next budget, she said. Murphy asked councilors to consider if they want to continue to tie the city budget to the CPI, as has been past practice. For context, municipal property taxes increased by 6.8% in FY23.
The council did not plan to respond to the budget presentation at this meeting, but will respond to a survey from Mayor Anne Watson regarding their priorities and reactions to this budget information.
Total revenues are projected to increase to $1,029,776, according to Murphy, who also said the total expenses are projected to increase $1,827,000, leaving a funding gap of $797,224. This gap represents a 5% increase in the General Fund over the current year budget. A penny on the tax rate raises $88,116, so a nearly 9-cent increase on the tax rate is needed to fund existing programs.
Murphy went on to state that there is no anticipated growth in the Grand List to increase tax revenues. Health insurance rates, salaries, and benefits increased costs of new and existing staff, and are anticipated to rise over last year. Debt service is “a huge chunk” of the capital improvement funding according to Murphy. Department heads have been directed that new initiatives should consider the city’s 2021 Equity Assessment and align with the council’s strategic plan. Community enhancements, such as the Community Fund and Homelessness Task Force, will be level funded.
According to the city’s “FY24 Budget Development Timetable,” department budgets will be submitted to the Finance Department by Nov. 8. Budget congress meetings — when different departments meet to discuss their budgets — will be held throughout November, during which options for adjusting budgets will be considered. The city council will consider a final, unified budget proposal on Dec. 9.
Zach Blodgett, Department of Public Works (DPW) operations manager, presented an update on its winter operations and parking bans. Last winter was moderately severe and DPW had snow removal issues as a result of seven staff vacancies, heavy equipment failures, and equipment shortages. Enforcement of the overnight and alternate-side parking plan was difficult due to staffing issues, which made it difficult for DPW to keep the roads passable. The police and fire departments have committed to assist DPW this winter with parking enforcement support and help clearing fire hydrants. Anticipated obstacles the department faces include salt prices that are expected to skyrocket; questionable availability of salt; a third, badly needed plow truck, ordered in 2021 and tentatively arriving in early 2023; and inexperienced new hires. The DPW is committed to maintaining the overnight and alternative-side parking plan as it is the most effective way to keep roads and sidewalks open.
A New City Utility
A stormwater utility, already used in St. Albans and South Burlington, may be in place by the summer of 2023 in Montpelier, according to consultants from Brown and Caldwell, Andrew Goldberg and Matt Davis. Goldberg and Davis have been working with Montpelier’s Stormwater Utility Committee to develop a rate structure, bill implementation, and to address the legal and charter amendment issues that are a part of setting up a utility. Customers in a stormwater utility system receive a separate bill for stormwater services on their property. Property owners currently pay for stormwater management through water and sewer bills. The stormwater services bill is based on the hard surface areas on the owner’s property that generate runoff. Brown and Caldwell plan to conduct a water-sewer rate study to ensure all fees are equitable.
The benefits of a stormwater utility are that it is more equitable in terms of rate structure, provides water pollution control and compliance, and predictable maintenance and replacement of stormwater infrastructure. State properties would be billed for stormwater services. Large contributors to stormwater runoff pay a higher fee.
Evelyn Prim, communications coordinator for Montpelier, presented an update on her progress working with the Department of Public Works to improve their communication regarding acute service conditions, disseminating hiring information to improve the applicant pool, and redesigning and updating the city’s website.
Kellogg-Hubbard Funding Request
Carolyn Brennan, co-director of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, presented its funding request for the March ballot of $411,774, an increase of $16,148 over last year. Brennan requested, and the council approved, the library to be on the ballot without the petition process. Brennan reported that the library is at pre-pandemic book circulation levels of 350,000, and digital circulation of books, magazines, and video of over 35,000. Library after-school usage, community educational programs, and public use of computers are also at pre-pandemic levels. According to Brennan, the library “fills little gaps … in social services.” People experiencing homelessness are utilizing its warm space, public bathroom, and water fountain. The staff also helps people connect to services and helps them avoid losing benefits.
Appointments to Committees
The council appointed Paul Carnahan and Craig Durham to the Historic Preservation Commission. The council made 13 Homelessness Task Force appointments. Ken Russell, Rick DeAngelis, Will Eberle, Ericka Reil, Dawn Little, and Zach Hughes were appointed to two-year terms. Tory Rhodin, Carolyn Ridpath, Peter Kelman, Mary Messier, and Nat Frothingham were appointed to one-year terms. Diane Mathew is the non-voting representative from the Police Department, and Conor Casey is a non-voting representative from the city council.