The State of the City
A look back (and ahead) after one year in office
Having served as mayor for a little more than a year, I thought it might be useful to look back and review our accomplishments and challenges, as well as our plans for the coming year.
When I ran for mayor, I promised to focus on three areas: our budget; our infrastructure; and three projects – District Heat, the Carr Lot and the bike path, the latter two having been in the planning stages for more than a decade. We have made progress on all three fronts, but have more work to do.
The budget approved by the voters in March increased spending by 2.2% -- less than half the rate of growth of recent years. All of this year’s increase, or roughly $166,000, will be invested in our roads and sidewalks.
Reducing our budget growth required the City Manager and City Council to make some difficult decisions. The budget eliminates 4.22 full-time positions, although fortunately no layoffs were required. These staff reductions are not expected to result in any significant disruption of services. While budgets will continue to be challenging, we made significant progress this year both in reducing the rate of our tax growth and investing in our infrastructure.
• District Heat
Our City team is to be commended for keeping this project on budget and on schedule. We broke ground on the City’s portion of the project – the pipes that will deliver heat throughout downtown Montpelier – on Thursday, April 18.
We overcame two major obstacles this year. The first came in August when our contract with the State forced us to commit to the project before we had received final cost estimates. A majority of the City Council voted against moving ahead. We successfully renegotiated our agreement to minimize the City’s risks, and a majority of the Council voted to approve the project. Our estimates and construction bids came in within budget.
The second hurdle arose in February when State officials informed us that the state’s portion of the project – the biomass plant – was $3.3 million over budget. The state initially insisted that the City pay more than $600,000 towards these overruns. We declined, since the City had no involvement in them and, we believed, no contractual obligations to pay for them. After two months of negotiations we agreed to pay $408,000, but only if the City purchases additional future capacity, or if we have a surplus after the distribution system is constructed.
• Carr Lot
The City has received more than $7 million in federal funding for acquisition and improvements of the Carr Lot, which is now used for State employee parking. These include a transit center, bike path segment, pedestrian bridge across the North Branch and a park. Our funding also includes money to acquire buildings that house Montpelier Beverage and the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
We have negotiated since December with property owners for the purchase of these sites and expect to acquire them within the next few months. We will then begin designing the new site.
This project will create a beautiful gateway to our City. It will provide a permanent location for a transit station that will also house a welcome center. And it will provide some much-needed green space along our river fronts downtown.
• Bike Path
The completion of the bike path has been a major priority since I took office, and we are making significant progress. Working with State and railroad officials, we reached agreement earlier this year on the location of the extended path, which will run from the Hunger Mountain Coop to Gallison Hill Road. The project is now in the design phase, and construction is expected to begin next year.
The bike path will be a major improvement in the quality of life for Montpelier residents. It will expand recreational opportunities and provide a practical means of traveling safely for the length of the City without using motorized vehicles.
• We organized a bike summit in October that was attended by 65 residents who helped plan ways to meet the council’s new goal of making Montpelier a nationally-recognized bike- and pedestrian-friendly city. We appointed a bike advisory committee that meets regularly and has developed ambitious plans to meet the council’s goal. Another group is working to build an entry-level mountain bike path around the edge of Hubbard Park, and a third is planning a bike festival. We also appointed a pedestrian advisory committee to develop policies to make our city more pedestrian friendly
• We appointed a citizen’s budget group last year to study ways to make city government more efficient. That group prepared an 88-page report which included dozens of recommendations, many of which were adopted by the City.
• We created the Montpelier Community Fund, governed by a five-person board, which now allocates funds for non-profit organizations. In March, the Council approved the board’s recommendations for more than $100,000 in grants. This fund allows non-profit organizations to avoid the time-consuming process of petitioning to get on the ballot, and it eliminated dozens of items from the annual ballot.
• We created a new policy that governs the allocation of Montpelier funds for non-resident services. The policy minimizes the use of Montpelier taxpayer funds for services that are provided to non-residents.
We’ve made great strides in meeting the goals established by the council, but there is, of course, much work that remains to be done:
• Economic Development. The Council is exploring a number of ways to promote economic development. The Council may consider creating a local development authority, similar to the Barre Area Development Corporation, with a dedicated mission of promoting business development.
• Parking. Parking is a major concern to many residents, business owners and visitors, particularly during the legislative session. We appointed a parking advisory committee to advise the Council on policies to address the parking demand. Over the long-term, I believe the City needs to build a parking garage, although neither the State nor the City has the funds to build one now. We also need to adopt policies that encourage non-motorized transportation in Montpelier.
• Housing. We need more housing in Montpelier. I have regular conversations with housing developers and am working to build on the efforts of the Montpelier Housing Task Force to promote responsible development that is affordable to residents of all incomes.
Montpelier is fortunate to have the services of many talented city employees, including our City Manager Bill Fraser, who is one of the most experienced managers in the state. Our city boards and commissions are filled with dedicated community volunteers. And we have a city council that consists of some of the most thoughtful people I have known. I am honored to have the opportunity to serve as mayor of this great city.