Home Commentary Opinion Proposed City Budget Fails to Address Infrastructure Needs

Proposed City Budget Fails to Address Infrastructure Needs

Cracked pavement, potholes, close up of rd with fall leaves on side.
Potholes on North Street, photo by John Lazenby.
Why are Montpelier’s roads in such bad shape? The answer, unlike for many other governmental challenges, is simple — we don’t spend enough to maintain them. Unfortunately, the FY24 budget proposed by the Montpelier City Council will make the problem worse. 

This is not, of course, a new problem. Ten years ago, our roads were in even worse shape, following decades of underfunding. 

In 2012, the council determined that the city could no longer afford to ignore the problem. The council directed city staff to develop a plan that would bring Montpelier’s roads, bridges, and sidewalks into reasonable condition. The Department of Public Works concluded that the city needed to spend $1 million more each year to repair our roads and maintain them in reasonable condition. In response, the council unanimously adopted a so-called “steady-state plan,” which called for steadily increasing spending on infrastructure over six years to close that gap. Under the steady-state plan, the city would spend $2.5 million annually on infrastructure — a 66% increase above the 2012 level of $1.5 million. 

Until 2018, the city was on track to meet that goal. Then, city council and staff priorities changed. Spending on infrastructure flattened over the next five years, even as road conditions worsened. Spending in other areas grew. The FY24 budget proposed by the city council includes no increase for infrastructure and would actually be $150,000 less than it was six years ago. 

Cumulatively, since 2018 the city has spent nearly $1.5 million less than the DPW staff said was needed during that time. That doesn’t take into account inflation, so the actual road maintenance deficit is much higher. And the shortfall will grow by at least another $350,000 under the council’s proposed FY24 budget. 

Where has the additional money gone? After all, the council approved a combined tax increase of 14.4% over the past two years alone. 

While the pandemic significantly reduced city revenue, the federal government more than made up for the city’s losses. Montpelier received $2.2 million in federal COVID assistance, which was significantly more than the city lost in revenue. 

The biggest change in spending has been an increase in staffing. From FY19 to FY24, the city’s staff has grown by nearly 10 full-time-equivalent positions, even as the city’s grand list and population have remained largely unchanged. 

The city acquired the former Elks Club property for $3 million, which soaked up funds that would have been available to pay for needed road upgrades and maintenance. The city also approved a $600,000 bond for “Confluence Park” — a project that the city council is still considering even as the cost has grown to an estimated $3 million. 

The council has funded a variety of other programs that traditionally have not fallen under the purview of municipalities. All of these programs provide important social services, but they’ve come at the expense of the city’s core duty to maintain its infrastructure for current and future residents.

The failure to maintain our roads and sidewalks is more than a daily annoyance, although it surely is that for anyone who drives regularly on East State Street, North Street, and many other local roads. It imposes hidden costs on residents who find themselves paying for car repairs that result from driving on potholed roads. It makes our streets unsafe for bicyclists. It creates hazardous conditions for walkers. 

Perhaps most significantly, these costs are being deferred to future residents. It seems unfair to saddle costs that current residents should pay on those who choose to live in Montpelier in the future. 

The city’s failing water and sewer lines demonstrate the long-term price of deferring expenses. Until 2017, the city had no plan to upgrade this infrastructure. At the council’s direction, city staff developed a 50-year replacement plan. That plan exceeds the life expectancy of most residents because the cost of deferred maintenance had grown to an estimated $83 million. 

Meanwhile, the city is spending large sums to patch the regular eruptions that result from broken water lines. Individual residents are forced to pay for expensive plumbing repairs because of the city’s extraordinarily high water pressure — an additional multi-million dollar problem that the city has no current plan to address. 

As Town Meeting Day nears, voters should recognize that the proposed FY24 city budget continues a decades-long practice of deferring infrastructure repairs and maintenance. Under this budget, our roads and other infrastructure will continue to degrade, and the cost of repairing them will continue to be passed on to future residents. 

Voters will be presented with candidates who have very different views about city priorities. The choices that voters make will almost certainly have a major impact on whether the city begins to address its deteriorating infrastructure. 

John Hollar served as Mayor of Montpelier from 2012 to 2018.