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Council OKs Part of Budget Adjustment, Postpones the Rest: Concerns about City Use of FEMA Funds

Screen shot of dark-haired woman speaking at a microphone at a city council meeting.
Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy addresses the Montpelier City Council on May 22. ORCA screenshot.
Work can go forward on Montpelier’s School Street paving, sewer, and water projects, but the rest of the line items for emergency funding allocations will have to wait. After a lengthy discussion, the Montpelier City Council on May 22 approved spending $680,000 out of the roughly $2 million the city has received in American Rescue Plan Act, Budget Adjustment Act, and Federal Emergency Management Agency money pending a lingering dispute over how to allocate the already-received $513,210 in FEMA money. 

The latest budget adjustment document presented at the meeting shows $300,000 of that money earmarked for a recreation center matching grant and $150,000 to move forward on a Country Club Road development contract. There is $61,155 still unallocated.

The city has a projected total combined amount of $2,075,155 set aside to be allocated, with $513,210 FEMA has paid the city as part of a lease agreement deal for the Country Club Road property where FEMA pulled the plug on a trailer home development, $736,945 from ARPA, and $825,000 in state public assistance.

The use of the FEMA money is what sparked concern.

“How we spend FEMA money is still upsetting to homeowners who are still dealing with houses that have been flooded,” said council member Adrienne Gil. “They are either living with houses that are down to the studs, or are displaced.” Gil said homeowners are concerned they won’t be getting the money from the state in an expedient fashion, if at all. One of the families has asked that the FEMA money be used in addition to the state aid money to help elevate the home. Gil also said she heard a rumor that homeowners might have to wait two to five years in order to get a contractor, because few Vermont companies are able to elevate homes. 

“Five years from now is not acceptable for our neighbors to be living in that kind of condition,” she said.

However, City Manager Bill Fraser and Planning and Community Development Director Mike Miller said the state of Vermont has approved $2 million for Montpelier and $1.5 million for Barre for the specific purpose of fixing up and elevating those homes damaged by the July 2023 flood.

Fraser noted that the $2 million from the state could be used for elevating and bringing buildings up to code and nothing else, while the FEMA money could be used to expedite creating more housing.

“I wouldn’t have recommended the use of the FEMA money if I didn’t know we had the $2 million from the state,” Fraser said. 

City council member Lauren Hierl said they would know with certainty that the money is there. City council member Tim Heney said it would be easier to attract contractors if they felt assured to get paid every week for the work done rather than having to wait for months to get paid.

Council member Sal Alfano said they should use the money where it would help the most people, and to approve the budget distribution as presented. 

“A lot of the things on this list have been painful to the city for years and years and years,” he said. But after further discussion, Alfano suggested amending his motion to approve the distribution as written to approving the first five line items, including the School Street construction and engineering services in order to keep moving forward on those projects while waiting to approve the FEMA allocation until the next city council meeting. The council unanimously approved the amended motion.

Riverbank Fence 

At one point council member Adrienne Gil asked about a line item for spending $40,000 on a fence itemized as “fence behind transit center — homelessness.” The fence would run from Shaw’s to the DMV building along the riverbank. Fraser explained the city is having a problem with people going over the bank and leaving litter and human waste for city workers to clean up.

“The idea is to run a fence to prevent people from living down there and preserve the riverbank and as a way to manage the situation there,” Fraser said. Staff members have talked to people, put up a sign not to camp there, and contemplated other measures to prevent people from congregating there, but to no avail, he said. 

Police Chief Eric Nordenson also addressed the matter. “We had to do a rescue down the bank and it was nearly impossible. We are just trying to keep people who are highly intoxicated off that river bank because 19% of our calls are in that particular area,” Nordenson said. “Is a fence the right answer? I don’t know, but we have to do something.” 

Council member Tim Heney brought up how people had been thinking it would be great to open up more access to the river bank through a proposed “Confluence Park,” and now problems such as this are occurring, which are causing other people to want to put up a chain link fence.

FEMA Building Update

The council adopted an updated report by Stevens and Associates regarding options for flood-proofing and future use of city hall, the police department, and the fire department buildings. They discussed bringing the buildings up to baseline minimum codes and standards versus going for the most desired outcomes, but costs and access to available money — such as from FEMA and flood insurance — is still not firm. “We have a really good conceptual plan, and we need more information,” said Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy. Stevens and Associates first appeared before the city council to present alternatives on April 17.

Council Approves Growth Center Plan

The city council approved a request by Miller to submit a growth center renewal application. The application would include the previous growth center, including the designated downtown area, and add in the Country Club Road property as well as the residential-9000 areas “as identified on the attachment,” Miller said.

Other Matters

Police Chief Eric Nordenson presented information on the police department, Fire Chief Robert Gowans presented information on the fire department, and Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy presented information on the strategic plan. Nordenson said his department is working with federal entities such as the FBI and Homeland Security to do investigations in town when needed. Gowans said he is looking forward to passing the torch to a new chief, since he is retiring, but that he will continue to be available to help as needed. Murphy suggested joining forces with the school system to more effectively use the recreational facilities such as the fields and gyms for town-wide and regional sports tournaments.