Three candidates for mayor of Montpelier have come forward to fill the seat vacated by Vermont State Sen. Anne Watson after her election to the Statehouse. Dan Jones, Jack McCullough, and Richard Sheir are all running to be the capital city’s next leader. The Bridge reached out to Jones, McCullough, and Sheir to get their thoughts about two major issues in Montpelier — aging infrastructure, and how to steward the use of Montpelier’s recently purchased Country Club Road property. Here is the exact text of the two questions we asked:
Country Club Road: “Citizens have expressed a desire for recreational use, housing, and conserving natural spaces on the city’s nearly 140-acre Country Club Road property. How would you, as mayor, drive this conversation, and what do you believe is the ideal use of this space?”
Infrastructure: “The city has a 50-year plan for replacing water mains; we are currently in year six of that plan; meanwhile residents and businesses are having to spend personal dollars on burst pipes, busted pressure valves, and the inconvenience of not having water when water mains break. The city also has a plan to fund paving projects through its Capital Investment Plan. Do you think these plans are adequate for addressing infrastructure issues in Montpelier, and if not, what do you propose?”
The candidates’ answers, plus a brief bio of each, follow.
Jones is a 14-year resident of Montpelier and a founder of Sustainable Montpelier as well as having spearheaded MyRide and the 2016 Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition. His priorities focus on preparing the city for climate emergencies, curbing new taxes, and supporting the viability of local businesses.
Country Club Road
Given the parcel is rural and not part of the city’s master plan, I have a problem with the current and expensive commitment of Montpelier’s limited planning resources. Was the decision to purchase the Elks Club framed as a choice of using limited public dollars? Are other decisions about public safety, recreation, and other community services considered in the same frame?
That the property was bought without a plan and now assumes a 10-year delay before possible development seems bad public policy. Those resources are needed for a public planning effort that will respond to the immediate challenges of the climate crisis and a growing recession.
We need to commit planning and administrative resources towards a master plan for our in-town land use and housing options, infrastructure funding, and emergency response to climate events. As mayor I would work with the council and our citizens to help create reality-based plans and performance objectives for our city’s future. Such plans would require inclusion of site development and program initiatives costs that the Elks Club purchase failed to consider.
As a cross country skier, I would be happy to see the old golf course continue as a recreation landscape, but would be open to a recreation developer that wanted to provide a $100,000+ yearly rent to relieve our taxpayers of bond payments for that purchase.
I entered this race because of my fear that Montpelier is not actually addressing its water crisis with any appreciable urgency. A 50-year plan is not a plan but an exercise in kicking the can down the road, leaving the next generation to deal with it. The draft plan seems to do little more than emergency repairs until 2040. While many of us may be gone by then, conditions will just deteriorate.
There is a projected cost of $83 million for the rebuild but no actual priorities of locations and needed work. Montpelier needs a comprehensive review of the current state of the system and identification of critical weaknesses. A serious plan needs to recognize that inflation and supply chain interruptions will be a growing problem in acquiring the financing and components for this work. The current plan is done in a rear-view mirror, assuming conditions tomorrow will look like yesterday.
There is a relationship between these two questions. The $3 million for the purchase of the Elks Club decreases the funding capacity of the city for infrastructure projects while assuming more investments to expand the water and sewer infrastructure, leaving future generations with an even heavier burden for maintaining that infrastructure.
It is time for a competent master plan to not only address critical infrastructure needs, but all the components of our systems from electricity to transportation to municipal communications.
McCullough currently serves as a city councilor for District 2, and is an attorney for the Mental Health Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid. He moved to Montpelier from Michigan in 1983 and with his wife raised two sons. He has said he intends to essentially continue the agenda established by former mayor Watson and the council in recent years with an emphasis on creating more housing in the city.
Country Club Road
We have already seen a robust level of citizen participation in the public planning process we have created. Polls show that people identify the need for housing as paramount. As our community meetings go on we will hear creative ideas for the use of the property, but housing will likely continue to be high on the list.
The council is determined to include the public every step of the way. As mayor, I’ll make sure we continue to get public input, and that we will only move forward once all voices are heard. Besides meetings there have been community opinion surveys and there are others currently being circulated.
In my view, the most important issue facing our city is the lack of housing for people who need it. The housing shortage places unsustainable burdens on people who want to live here, while creating an impediment to economic development.
I also recognize that recreation is high on all our surveys, and the preservation of natural space, and those needs must also be met. Fortunately, given the large size of the parcel, I think we will be able to design a new neighborhood that meets all of these goals.
We must do everything we can to keep our water and sewer systems and roads working as they were designed. There are historical and physical reasons for infrastructure failures, including topography, chemistry, and simply the age of the system.
I have met with the heads of the departments and visited the facilities, so when I say we can rely on their professionalism I speak with confidence. The safety and purity of our water is better than it has ever been, and Montpelier has won statewide competitions for the best-tasting surface water supply.
The Montpelier Department of Public Works is once more studying the long-term issue of water pressure and researching new technology and finances to better assess our options to improve our delivery water system.
We have invested federal ARPA funds in paving, although we are still short of where we should be. As you know, whenever we design a budget we must balance our needs and the cost impact on our residents. In the coming years, as our revenues recover to pre-COVID levels, we hope to restore our investments and meet the clear needs of our community.
Sheir is a 22-year District 2 resident who designs online tools for those assisting disabled veterans and others with barriers to employment. Sheir’s family, along with his wife, Cindra Conison, who owns the Quirky Pet on State Street, includes Montpelier’s “legendary” Bergamasco sheepdogs. He has said that some of his priorities as a mayoral candidate are infrastructure and streamlining the city budget to focus on the basics.
Country Club Road
The Elks Club property was acquired without a prior business case projecting development costs. I propose that in six months, Elks Club proponents present to council their detailed business case that includes a realistic, benchmarked development time frame along with a projected public capital investment price tag for all infrastructure as well as possible land subsidy. The council would either reprioritize long established capital spending plans or resell the Elks Club land.
There are alternatives for housing. I favor Sabin’s Pasture. There’s a pivotal difference between development in Sabin’s Pasture we don’t own and the golf course we do. Sabin’s Pasture is in the same utilities tax district that provided nearby Barr Hill water/sewer without existing water/sewer users paying. New Sabin’s Pasture infrastructure would share the same funding mechanism while Montpelier residents would be financing the Elks Club’s new water/sewer infrastructure.
Properly addressing our aging infrastructure is my clearly stated concern. Come September, if the proposed Elks Club business case doesn’t receive council endorsement, I will recommend the recaptured $3 million become repurposed capital spending replacing aged downtown mains. In this scenario, every Montpelier resident benefits.
Our aging water/sewer infrastructure has been ignored for far too long. Recent councils have absolutely no excuse for repeatedly authorizing spot temporary water main repairs and not commissioning a detailed study of the condition of our infrastructure by qualified consultants. This speaks to council priorities.
While commissioning an elaborate parking garage engineering plan, we still lack an accurate and much-needed accounting of our underground pipelines and their condition throughout town. The major projects on Northfield and Harrison were literally stopped for a period of days on Northfield and weeks on Harrison so the pipes they wanted to replace could be located. The recent School Street project took weeks longer than anticipated, puzzling the issues below ground. Legitimate high water pressure concerns have been downplayed as ‘communications’ issues. That rhetoric is dismissive. There are burst water pipes in our neighbors’ homes through no fault of their own. Their water pressure damage concerns merit a serious outside examination.
As mayor, council’s infrastructure denial will end. We likely won’t want to hear what water/sewer experts will tell us … but as responsible adults we deserve to know the actual status to shape an informed triage that minimizes future temporary spot repairs.
Candidate Forums Feb. 27
The Montpelier Rotary Club will host a forum for city mayoral candidates on Feb. 27, from 12:30 to 2 p.m., in the council chambers at Montpelier City Hall. A second forum for candidates for City Council will follow at 3 p.m. The event is free of charge and open to the public and will be broadcast by ORCA Media.
Managing Editor Cassandra Hemenway of The Bridge will serve as moderator of the live, in-person event. Viewers can also watch live from ORCA Media on Comcast channel 1085 and online at orcamedia.net. The forum will be recorded and available for later viewing at orcamedia.net.