Home News and Features Montpelier City Council Revs Up for Budget Talks

Montpelier City Council Revs Up for Budget Talks

Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough, left, talks during the city council meeting Nov. 15. City Manager William Fraser is on his right. Screenshot from ORCA Media video.
Economic development? Housing? Climate Change? Helping the homeless population? These are among categories of spending priorities set by the Montpelier City Council during a strategic planning session at a prior meeting, but choosing top funding priorities for the coming year did not come easily, if at all. City Manager Bill Fraser tried to tackle those topics with the mayor and city council during its regular meeting Nov. 15.

Fraser tried to corral councilors into pinpointing their top priorities so city financial staff can craft a responsive budget, but several members of the council said the FY24-25 Strategic Plan report had too many items to contemplate, and not enough information relative to cost and time frame. Additionally, Councilor Cary Brown noted that the strategic plan did not even mention basic things like routine snow plowing. Fraser explained that past city councils have asked for the city to present a budget that included all the annually expected “basics” such as snow plowing, fire and emergency response, and routine police work — but to set aside items not strictly required to keep the city going in a separate document. 

This coming year, such extra items include creating a winter shelter for unhoused individuals, increasing the amount of recreation trails, and expanding communication tools, such as broadband access. “Next meeting we will talk about the budget,” Fraser said. “We are all aware it is going to be pretty tight this year. Next year’s priorities will be based on what we see in this budget.”

Finance Director Sarah Lacroix submitted a report showing a revenue shortfall of $1.5 million due mostly to flood-related property value reduction and other flood-related damage during the Nov. 8 meeting. Given that situation, Lacroix wrote that she recommended following “the general fund deficit mitigation plan and closely monitoring all funds for adverse financial impacts from the flooding event.” 

But during this recent meeting, all items mentioned during an earlier meeting about the city council’s overall long term strategic plan were captured on a document titled “Montpelier City Council’s FY 24-25 Strategic Plan draft for review.” Councilor Tim Heney said the document did not contain prioritized actionable items. “I’d rather see three or four main goals, not statements of philosophy,” he said. The six goals outlined in the document were to advance the economy, encourage resident engagement in government, create more housing, rebuild for the future in the face of climate change, build and maintain sustainable infrastructure, and improve public health and safety – including the unhoused, and those with mental health challenges and addiction. One of the more concrete goals was to keep the post office downtown; another was to convert empty offices into housing. Other goals included funding the arts and building more recreation trails.

Talk swirled around those six goals, with one of the starting points being to simplify zoning and streamline the process of developing housing. Additionally, the strategic plan said the city should be a partner on housing projects and continue to work with FEMA on temporary housing while also seeking grant funding. Fixing city infrastructure damaged by the flood in a way that protects it from future disaster damage was also a concern. Department of Public Works Director Kurt Motyka said his department lost an engineer, which curtailed their progress on keeping up with the storm water system and managing wetlands compliance issues.

Under the category of funding public health and safety, a top priority is developing a winter shelter and a day center for unhoused people. Steve Whitaker spoke at the beginning of the meeting during public comment time about how the current plan for a winter shelter at the Elks Club is “unconscionable” because there are no showers in the building. Additionally, those staying overnight at the shelter will be bussed to town with nowhere to go at 7:30 a.m, Whitaker said. Then, during the strategic plan portion of the meeting, Councilor Sal Alfano talked about putting public showers and restrooms in the Recreation Center on Barre Street. Alfano said the city has to decide whether to use the building, or replace it. Alfano also noted later in the discussion that if the city puts in a permanent winter shelter, the police will have to be trained accordingly.  In any case, it is written into the strategic plan to develop bathrooms, showers and campgrounds without specifying when or where.

Under the section on community safety, the document listed items such as enforcing speed limits, red light and stop sign violations, clamping down on DUI and drunk driving as well as reducing property crimes and assaults. It also includes a suggestion to provide needle drops and Narcan.

Meanwhile, it is expected the city will continue to fund and operate the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, the after school program, FEAST program and recreation opportunities. However, Fraser pointed out that some of the priorities are outside of “our wheelhouse,” such as broadband access. “How much say do we have in that anyway?” He said.

Councilor Pelin Kohn asked for a rewrite on the strategic plan to include a time frame for each strategy. “Zero to six months, for example. We need to prioritize the strategies,” Kohn said, acknowledging that each strategy requires manpower and city council time, so each strategy should have a designated time frame.

Fraser said once the council decides its priorities, staff can tweak time frames accordingly. Mayor Jack McCullough said rebuilding from the flood and incorporating net zero energy policies to protect the city from the next disaster is a top priority. 

“If we are going to try to rebuild from the flood without doing anything to protect us from the next flood, we are being kind of stupid,” McCullough said.

Heney remained solid on not liking the strategic plan document as presented. “There’s so much here. It is almost like a wishlist…all these somewhat disjointed items…I’m not really comfortable with this,” he said. McCullough agreed there were too many items on the list and too many different opinions to allow them to move in any direction.

Fraser said the document reflected a lot of what city staff does throughout the year. “This is work that gets done. The city is a lot busier than people think we are,” he said. He further said the document’s specifics were meant to help city council advance their strategies. 

Alfano boiled down his view on the priorities as “people, paving and pizza,” which represents public health, infrastructure and economic development.  This is where the focus needs to start,” he said. 

McCullough suggested pulling out each goal and spreading them out individually during future meetings, but that “doesn’t help us tonight and it doesn’t get us a budget.”

In the end, Fraser asked councilors to email in their top three concerns to city staff so they can create a budget for FY25. The next City Council meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13 at Montpelier High School.