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Community Engagement Encouraged as Budget Challenges Lie Ahead

 


The City Council begins the post-election year with the same members, which will provide a degree of continuity that has not occurred in Montpelier in many years. While turnover can be a good thing for public bodies, I believe our city will benefit from a second year of continuity on the city council.

Our council members, Tom Golonka, Jessica Edgerly Walsh, Anne Watson, Justin Turcotte, Thierry Guerlain, Dona Bate and me, hold diverse political views, but are a group that works hard, listens respectfully and solves problems through collaboration. The fact that our municipal budget was approved by 80 percent of voters – the highest in at least 30 years – is a testament to the hard work of the council. I look forward to serving another year with these talented and dedicated individuals.

Public Participation

Only about one-third of Montpelier’s registered voters voted on Town Meeting Day. Although our voter turnout was higher than in many communities, a system in which two-thirds of participants opt out clearly needs improvement. A recent article in the Bridge included comments from many local residents who choose not to vote, for a variety of reasons. We need to improve our understanding of why so many voters choose not to participate in local elections and find ways to ensure that their participation is meaningful.
One easy way to encourage greater voter participation is to allow for same-day voter registration. I am pleased to join with City Clerk John Odum in supporting legislation, S.29, a bill under consideration in the legislature which would allow voters to register on the day of an election.
While our rate of voter participation should be higher, the level of citizen participation on our boards and commission is remarkable. The council regularly has to choose between highly qualified applicants for volunteer city positions. I am constantly amazed by, and grateful to, the talented individuals who offer to spend long hours volunteering on our boards, commissions and committees. Their participation makes Montpelier a far richer and more interesting city.

Public Engagement on the Budget

Montpelier also has an impressive level of community engagement on important decisions. We have benefited greatly from citizen input on a range of issues in recent months, including the Taylor Street development, our downtown design, the bicycle and pedestrian master plan, and a city branding project.

We will be reaching out to the community this spring for help in solving the significant budget challenge that we will face in the coming years: how to maintain our commitment to make sustainable infrastructure investments while keeping our taxes affordable.

Three years ago, we determined that the city was spending about one million dollars less each year on our roads and sidewalks than is needed to maintain them in good condition. We adopted a six-year plan to increase infrastructure spending by $166,000 annually for six years. We are now halfway towards that “steady state” goal.

For the last three years, we have been able to increase significantly our infrastructure investment while still holding municipal tax increases to the rate of inflation. That challenge has become more difficult each year, however, and will not be possible over the next three years without making structural changes in the delivery of municipal services. We will not be able to deliver the same city services in the same manner while transferring another $500,000 towards capital improvements – the amount needed to reach a steady state. At the same time, I don’t believe our community can afford to add those additional costs to our tax rate.

We will hold a series of public engagement sessions this spring to get input from the community on how best to solve this problem. Should we reorganize city departments? Reduce services? Increase taxes? Those are the difficult choices that lie ahead, and I look forward to hearing from community members about how to solve this challenge.

Council Goals

Each year, the Council establishes the city’s goals and priorities for the upcoming year. (The current goals can be found on the city’s web site). The Council will discuss the goals for 2015-16 at its meeting on March 25. My hope is that we will agree to build on many of our existing priorities:
  • Stay on schedule for our two major city projects, the Taylor Street development and the bike path extension. Both projects have been delayed by one year, but my goal for the city is to maintain the current schedule to complete the bike path in the fall of 2016 and the Taylor Street project in the fall of 2017.
  • Commit additional resources to Net Zero Montpelier. The Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee has made great progress in framing the challenge and engaging in community outreach. In order to make meaningful progress towards this goal, we will need to devote more city resources to this project.
  • Make progress on making Montpelier a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly community. We need to finalize our bike master plan and begin to implement it.
  • Continue to improve our communication with residents. This year’s electronic distribution of the annual city report, and the electronic notice of winter on-street parking bans, are examples of the rapid change in the way the city communicates. We need to build on these successes and modernize the city’s web site. This work is well underway, and we need to ensure that it is completed in a timely and cost-effective way.
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As always, I appreciate having the opportunity to serve as Mayor of Montpelier. Please feel free to call me at 223-4651 or email me at jhollar@montpelier-vt.org with any comments or concerns.

 

 





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