In a marathon five-hour Montpelier City Council meeting on Dec. 14, councilors focused on 18 agenda items, including a proposed budget that would raise property taxes 7.4%, naming a new police chief, and the removal of an art commissioner.
General Business and Appearances
In the section of the meeting reserved for public comment, residents had both unique and shared concerns.
Tom Mulholland requested that the discussion of the membership of the Public Art Commission be held in a public hearing, not in executive session, as the “flawed” memorandum sent to the council by the commission contained “gross omissions … and facts that are disputed“ regarding himself.
Sandy Vitzthum and Phil Dodd discussed the existing and potential costly damage to buildings caused by blown water pressure reducers from the 200 psi of water pressure in the city’s water lines. Vitzthum requested the city notify the public in writing of the possible need to replace water pressure reducers in homes and buildings.
Zach Hughes, Carolyn Ridpath, Peter Kelman, and Ken Russell expressed urgency regarding the need for public rest-rooms and the need for the city to take action beyond what the public restroom committee can do.
Budget-to-actual second-quarter fiscal updates for FY23 were included in the consent agenda — a section of council meetings when councilors typically approve a spate of items deemed not to require public discussion. With 43% of the fiscal year completed, the finance department reported this year’s budget is on target, but the department continues to monitor personnel accounts. New hires have created increased salary and benefit expenses. Fund-by-fund details will be provided in the next quarterly briefing in January.
Transit Center Expanded Hours
As part of the consent agenda, the council approved spending $18,566 to staff the Green Mountain Transit Center (GMT). The city is paying $38.44 per hour to Good Samaritan Haven for staffing and support services. An agreement between the city and GMT provides access to the center’s bathrooms, janitor closet, and lobby for an additional 23 hours per week from Dec. 5, 2022 through April 30, 2023. Green Mountain Transit will not enforce anti-loitering policies for the indoor lobby during regular business hours, and City Manager Bill Fraser said GMT and Federal Transit has veto power over anything the city might want to do at the center, despite the city owning the facility.
Audited financial statements for FY2022, ending June 30, were presented by Miranda MacDonald, CPA, and Ron Smith, CPA, of Smith & Company. The completed annual audit yielded a “clean,” unqualified audit opinion. Revenues exceeded expectations and expenditures, MacDonald said. Taxes provide 75% of Montpelier’s revenues, grants provide 10%. The policy of the city to have 15% of budgeted general fund expenditures in the fund balance is currently being met.
Revenues for the city increased by 5.83% as a result of grants and contributions, while total expenses increased by 6.84%, she reported. Public safety costs constitute about 46% of the budget and governmental expenses 21%. Public works, culture, and recreation experienced the largest increases in expenses. Montpelier currently maintains four proprietary funds: sewer, water, parking, and district heat, which showed a net increase of $663,674. The debt per capita is $932.88, which is comparable with other Vermont cities similar in size to Montpelier.
Sixty-six Percent Increase to Wrightsville Requested
Colin O’Neil, manager of the Wrightsville Beach Recreation District requested a 66% increase in Montpelier’s assessment, from $1.50 per capita to $2.50. The request is made in large part to pay for shifting the seasonal beach manager position to full-time with benefits, according to the Oct. 14, 2022 minutes of the Wrightsville Board of Directors meeting, although O’Neil also said costs are increasing. If approved, Montpelier’s assessment would rise from $12,000 to $20,000, an increase of $8,074.
Safety Authority to Dissolve
Voters will see a resolution on the ballot at Town Meeting this March to dissolve the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority (CVPSA). The authority has been granted a $2.4 million dollar grant from the Vermont Department of Public Safety to replace about half the equipment needed for Montpelier and Barre to develop a regional dispatch system. It is unclear what will happen to this money if the authority is disbanded. Steve Whitaker, Kimberly Cheney, Justin Drechsler, and Bill Fraser provided information to the council regarding the charter and functioning of CVPSA so it could take appropriate action. Drechsler, a Montpelier representative to CVPSA, reported that the committee “doesn’t work.”
City Draft Budget Increases Taxes 7.4%
Fraser recommended a budget $1.2 million higher than the current budget, which, if approved by city councilors, will increase property taxes by 7.4%. The council plans to review the budget in depth at its Dec. 21 meeting. See full story on page 1.
Local Option Sales Tax Charter Change
Fraser reported that a 1% local option sales tax could raise up to $1.65 million in revenue for the city. Approval at all state levels of government would be required, and any funds would not be available in 2023, he said. The city’s share of this revenue could represent a 15% property tax reduction, he said.
Cary Brown noted that non-property owners will pay the sales tax.
“It is the most regressive tax there is,” she said.
Phil Dodd said that any goods purchased elsewhere, but delivered here, would be subject to the local tax. According to Fraser, local option taxes fund PILOT payments — payment in lieu of taxes — related to state-owned properties within the city — which are increasing and benefit Montpelier. This item will be placed on a future city council agenda for further discussion.
Utility Status Update
Public Works director Kurt Motyka reviewed the history of Montpelier’s water and sewer systems. In the 1800s city water came from Berlin Pond. As utilization of Berlin Pond expanded, water pressure to the city, through booster pumps, also increased. Cast iron pipes dated to the 1800s are outliving ductile pipes installed in the 1980s. In 1962, Montpelier’s raw sewage no longer entered the river after construction of a treatment plant.
In 2016, a water and sewer master plan — an $83 million, 50-year plan to replace all of Montpelier’s aging water pipes — was created. The plan calls for increasing user fees by inflation plus 1% every year to pay for replacing pipes. The plan also led to the separation of stormwater and roof drains from the sewer system.
Because of excess water pressure topping 200 psi, the state of Vermont required the city to find a way to reduce pressure. As a result, Motyka said, a hydraulic analysis is currently underway. Options to reduce water pressure range from adding in booster stations and relocating a pressure-reducing vault, plus replacing pipes, he said. The cost for that could top $30 million, Motyka has said in past interviews with The Bridge. Pressure spikes could be eliminated with a gravity feed tank. Fire hydrant capacity and fire flow capacities are also considerations.
Montpelier Police Department Gets a New Chief
Police Chief Brian Peete and Deputy Chief Eric Nordenson reviewed a list of 29 projects completed between 2020 and 2022. Projects ranged from developing a succession plan, benchmark analytics, seeking federal grants, providing advanced survival tactical training, and securing and training a K9 team to implementing body cameras. The top 10 incidents in Montpelier were traffic stops, directed patrols, suspicious events, property issues, mental health and wellness checks, motor vehicle complaints, and disorderly conduct.
Chief Peete, who is leaving the department, was presented with a key to the city. Shortly after that, the council named Eric Nordenson as the new Chief of Police. For details, see montpelierbridge.org/2022/12/nordenson-named-as-montpelier-police-chief.
The Public Art Commission
The council unanimously voted to remove Tom Mulholland from the commission. See story, page 1.
Councilors made the following committee appointments: Planning Commission, Maria Arsenlis; Historic Preservation, Elaine Ball; Public Restroom Committee, Jennifer Brown, Kim Ward, Lucinda McCloud, and Mary Alice Bisbee. Current members Zach Hughes and Carolyn Ridpath were reappointed.