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Retiring Chief Gowans Honored by City Council: District Heat Rates Stay the Same

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Mayor Jack McCullough gives retiring Fire Chief Robert Gowans a key to the city to honor his 45 years of service to the city. ORCA screenshot.
Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough gave the key to the city to retiring Montpelier Fire Chief Robert Gowans on June 26. Gowans announced his retirement earlier this year after 45 years with the fire department, which began July 12, 1979. Gowans was promoted to Lieutenant in 1996, and then to deputy fire chief in 2008. He became fire chief on May 1, 2011. Gowans also graduated from Montpelier High School in 1975 and then served in the United States Navy.

City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution honoring the “Retirement of Fire Chief Robert Gowans” along with McCullough reading the proclamation and handing out the key to the city. McCullough said Gowans had tireless dedication and performed extraordinary service to the city of Montpelier. City Manager Bill Fraser also expressed his appreciation, saying Gowans provided an important part of city leadership, especially during times when they had to deal with floods, breaking up ice, and other feats of prevention and recovery.

Gowans’s family and supporters  joined the meeting virtually to offer congratulatory and appreciative words, including his brother, Ken, who said Gowans was not only a leader for the city, but also for his four siblings. His children spoke next.

“Dad, sorry I’m not there. You’ve been a true leader to not just the city, but to the family,” said Gowans’s son, Dan Gowans. “It is easy to be a leader 40 hours a week, but you were truly a leader 24-7. I’ve seen you go back to fire scenes on your day off, pull out furniture, and clean it.” Dan Gowans described how his father helps people in need and has a good character. “You’ve lifted that city up and lifted our family up,” Dan Gowans said.

His daughter, Rachel, spoke next saying she is very proud of his career and that she appreciates “everything you’ve done for all of us.” Some of his grandchildren also told him they loved and appreciated him.

Chief Gowans spoke last, saying he really enjoyed working with the employees of the city of Montpelier, naming Fraser, Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy and others. “I’m glad I was here for the flood. I’m glad I was here to help and help the city get through it,” he said. Then, he said he and his wife were headed to the Mountaineers game rather than stay for the rest of the city council meeting.

All but Heney OK $6.5M Buildings Project Contract Amendment

Montpelier City Council agreed in a split decision to authorize City Manager Bill Fraser to execute a contract amendment for the Montpelier City Buildings Flood Resiliency Project. The contract amendment between the city and Brattleboro-based Stevens and Associates totals $6,595,000 to flood-proof lower levels of City Hall, the police department and the fire department buildings. The amendment asks city council to approve $365,075 up front to “further develop the design of minimum codes and standard alternatives to obtain an opinion of project cost, which will be used by FEMA to establish the insurance and FEMA contribution of reconstruction. This information will be used to determine FEMA reimbursement for rebuild work.”

Mayor Jack McCullough said this money is necessary to spend in order to get “many many millions of money from FEMA” in order to rebuild those public buildings without causing taxpayers to shoulder those funds. All council members except Tim Heney approved the motion to “direct city manager to execute a contract with Stevens & Associates.” Heney voted ‘no,’ saying the contract calls for spending too much money for the services outlined. 

“I just can’t support it now,” Heney said, “If you get the feds to explain the process a little better, maybe that would help, but it feels like overkill for me.”

Under the contract’s plan, the police station would get minor flood proofing in the basement at a  $95,000 construction cost, plus $20,000 for design. City Hall would get flood proofing in the basement and raised utilities for $5 million construction cost, plus an additional 11.2% design cost ($560,000). The fire station would get flood proofing and raised utilities at a construction cost of $1.5 million with an added 11.1% design cost ($166,000.00). 

Council Approves Community Fund Request

Community Fund board member Maread Harris asked for and received council approval for a $134,150 allocation from the fiscal year 2025 general fund budget to cover its annual awards. Harris said most requests were only partially funded, such as the organization “All Brains Belong” request for $3,800, but receiving an award of $750, and the American Red Cross request for thousands of dollars, but receiving zero.

Awards included $4,000 for Vermont Adult Basic Education, $2,000 for Central Vermont Community Radio, $5,000 for Downstreet Housing, $15,000 for the Basement Teen Center, $18,000 for Good Samaritan Haven, $6,000 for the Monteverdi Music School, $0 for Montpelier Alive, $4,000 for Lost Nation Theatre, and $0 for Turtle Island Children’s Center. Harris did not explain specific reasons for funding decisions.

Community member Steve Whitaker asked why allocate $15,000 for the teen center when the building is not being used as a teen center and the program has not apparently been relocated. He also questioned “zeroing out” the allocation for Montpelier Alive, which he said has been so crucial for creating partnerships between downtown businesses and the unhoused people in regards to bathroom facilities, etc.

Following further discussion about the origins and purpose of the Community Fund, City Council unanimously approved the recommended allocations. The  Community Fund board was “created by the City Council in 2012 to review requests and recommend allocation of municipal funds to local non-profit organizations and individual artists,” according to documents posted in the agendas section of the city website. The board solicits applications each year, and then considers applications based on prior funding, how many people are affected, and the extent to which the grant benefits “Montpelier, its residents and the public good.”

Harris said there was an increase in applications by $10,000 over the previous year. Council member Adrienne Gil questioned if funding these organizations from the general fund is the best way to go, and asked how other communities fund nonprofit organizations. Fraser said Cambridge, Massachusetts gets community development block grants, but Montpelier is not eligible for similar funding. Fraser said if the community fund were eliminated, organizations would go straight to petitioning to be on the ballot and “there would be 48 additional ballot items.” Creating the Community Fund was an initiative to eliminate allocation requests directly on the ballot, Fraser said.

Traffic Calming Discussed

Cummings Street — located off Elm Street not far from the public swimming pool — has a problem with unsafe driving incidents according to a residents in that area. Piper Nevins said her home was hit by a truck “by an inebriated driver who is a resident of the street.” Nevins asserted four-wheelers speed up and down the street, and even commercial delivery drivers speed on that street. Another resident, identified as “Jeannie,” said someone recently hit a telephone pole, causing it to split in half.

Nevins, who spoke for longer than the usual three minute limit, as Whitaker pointed out, further noted that since Cummings Street has access to the North Branch trail, it attracts dog walkers, cross country skiers, and families with children. It is only a matter of time before an animal or human gets seriously hurt, Nevins said, adding, “We would implore your consideration of allocating speed bumps for that street.” City Council members Tim Heney and Adrienne Gil said they, too, used that route for recreation.

Department of Public Works Project Manager Corey Line said implementing permanent speed bumps follows a process starting with the application, then having it expensed and going through the budgeting process along with other street projects. “It doesn’t usually come to the council at this early stage,” Line said. But Nevins and others asserted the topic has been discussed for many years without resolution. Council member Lauren Hierl suggested implementing a temporary traffic calming solution until something more permanent can be constructed. Whitaker said those speeding drivers are probably a handful of people “terrorizing our streets”, and they should be controlled by police traffic enforcement.

Montpelier Alive Updates

Montpelier may become known as “the city of bridges,” said Katie Trautz, executive director of Montpelier Alive. Trautz said her organization received $100,000 to decorate the seven bridges in Montpelier in lights this winter and for special occasions.

“Bridge lights can be colored, they can be white…they can be anything we want them to be,” Trautz said. There are four bridges crossing the Winooski River and three crossing the North Branch. “It could put Montpelier on the map,” she said.

Montpelier Alive raised $2.6 million and made over 150 grants to businesses to help them get back on their feet following the July 2023 flood. In addition, it decorates the city throughout the year, including by planting flowers in the summer and evergreen garlands and lights in winter. The organization also plans to redesign its website to include, designing some of it in French in order to attract more people from Quebec. In addition to upping marketing efforts and expanding seasonal decorations, Trautz continues to work with the Commission on Recovery and Resilience to further flood recovery efforts, she said.

Council Adopts District Heat Rates

District Heat rates will not go up next year. Finance director Sarah LaCroix asked for and received approval for district heat rates with almost no discussion.

 “It is the same as last year…no increases. We were unable to do a capacity study this year so there was no way to reallocate,” LaCroix said.

“You are confident that without any increases it is sufficient to meet our needs?” McCullough asked, and LaCroix averred that it would meet the city’s needs. A memo from the LaCroix reads, “It is my recommendation that the City Council approve the District Heat budget in the amount of $689,589 and establish the District Heat Montpelier capacity rate at $6.90/MBTUH” (thermal units per hour – no change from fiscal year 2024) and the energy rate at $15.65/MBTUH (thermal units – no change from fiscal year 2024) for fiscal year 2025. These rates will generate enough revenue to cover the operational costs of District Heat Montpelier for 2025 and reflect the State of Vermont projected operational cost for the upcoming heating season.

Strategic Plan Adopted

City council unanimously adopted this year’s strategic plan presented by Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy, but asked for changes in the structure of the document next year. City Councilor Lauren Hierl asked for this year’s plan to include language about how the city will work toward addressing climate change. City Council member Cary Brown said the current plan contains too much detail but that she felt comfortable approving it the way it is. Heney said the Confluence Park project is unrealistic at this point, and should be removed from the plan. He also had comments about zoning changes, and recommended changing the wording “develop and implement snow melt systems” to “change to evaluate and consider”.

Council Approves Liquor Licenses

Council approved liquor licenses for Oakes and Evelyn (class 1 and class 3), Bear Naked Growler (class 1, 2 and outside consumption), Langdon Street Tavern (Magne-Tomas Company, outside consumption), Arandas Mexican Cuisine (tobacco), Bent Nails Bistro (Class 1 and 3). 

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