Mayor Miro Weinberger's State of the City Address - April 6, 2015
Good evening and welcome to City Hall. I would like to share with you the state of our City and my vision for the year ahead.
First, I offer greetings and a warm welcome to City Councilors, Department Heads, Members of City Boards and Commissions, and Major General Steven Cray, Adjutant General of Vermont, and his wife Lisa. I’d also like to extend special thanks for joining us this evening to my Vermont mayor colleagues, Mayor John Hollar of Montpelier and Mayor Mike O’Brien, the immediate past mayor of Winooski.
To Justice of the Peace Andrew Champagne, thank you for the honor of swearing me in for another term. I am grateful for the many ways you have volunteered to serve our City over the years.
I want to thank my incredible partner, my wife, Stacy and our daughters for their unending love and support. And thank you to my parents, Ethel and Michael, for being here tonight and for all you’ve done to make my service to the City possible.
To our retiring City Councilors Rachel Siegel, Vince Brennan, Bianka LeGrand, and Norm Blais, we thank you for your dedicated service to our City. Congratulations to the ten returning City Councilors, to Sara Giannoni, the newest representative of the Old North End, and to Adam Roof, who will forever have the distinction of being the first councilor elected in Ward 8. I look forward to the work and debates ahead that will take place right here in our recently improved Contois Auditorium.
And to the people of Burlington and everyone gathered here tonight, thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve in this special role for another three years. I will do everything I can to fulfill the ideals and opportunity represented by this office.
The State of the City address comes as we slowly – too slowly – are closing out a challenging winter. I would like us all to take a moment to thank Laurie Adams, leader of the Public Works Water Team, Rob Green, leader of the Streets Team, and Chapin Spencer, our DPW director, for the hard work that they and their teams performed this winter to restore water to homes with frozen pipes and keep the roads and sidewalks clear.
And, this State of the City will be the last one with Mike Schirling as our Chief of Police. Chief Schirling has been one of the great Chiefs of the Burlington Police Department. As Chief, he modernized the Department, deepened its community ties, and confronted squarely growing social challenges. Chief, it has been an honor to serve with you, and thank you for all you have done during your 25 years in the Department to make your hometown the special place it is.
For the past three years, our attention has been focused on stabilizing and rebuilding the City’s finances. Our success at fixing the finances was critical. Our ability to provide essential City services, the confidence of our partners to invest and grow in Burlington, and the public’s trust all hung in the balance as we labored at the edge of fiscal crisis.
A year ago during this address, I said that, based on the collective work of the City Council, the Administration, and the voters, I thought that we had turned the corner and our finances were improving. Today, after completing the BT settlement agreement, securing a clean audit, and earning an upgrade of our credit rating, we know that we have, in fact, stepped away from the cliff. This shared success will grow and compound over time and keep tens of millions of dollars here in Burlington, instead of sending it to Wall Street in the form of high bond interest rates.
The improvement of our City’s finances is part of a broader Burlington story of progress and momentum over the past year.
Other highlights within the City included Burlington earning well-deserved national accolades by becoming the first city in the U.S. to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable generators, the Fletcher Free Library receiving the news that for the first time ever it will host a Smithsonian exhibit, and breaking ground for the enhanced Bike Path and the improvements to the northern Waterfront.
And it is not just municipal government that has had a productive year. The City’s tech sector – a crucial component of our current and future prosperity – had a breakout year that included Dealer.com’s unprecedented billion dollar transaction, Ello’s incredible launch, and the creation of hubs of innovation and creativity at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies and Generator, our dynamic new maker space.
We have more visitors coming to and staying in Burlington than ever before. Eight years ago, there was only one hotel in this City. Two weeks ago, we celebrated the opening of our fourth. This growing regional and international interest in visiting the City’s restaurants, shops, bike paths, and arts and cultural facilities is creating local jobs and generating new revenues to the City and State, reducing some of the pressure on local property taxpayers.
And the hospital and university, for so long the anchors of this community through thick and thin, are growing in positive ways. Under the visionary leadership of its CEO, Dr. John Brumsted, the University of Vermont Medical Center changed its name and moved forward with a long-planned expansion effort to improve the services it offers patients in Burlington and across the north country.
Similarly, the University of Vermont is seeking to make major investments in its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – or STEM – resources. This includes reimagining and ultimately rebuilding substantial portions of the University campus, and I am pleased that as part of this effort UVM will be increasing the number of student beds on campus by at least 300. In Dr. Brumsted and UVM President Tom Sullivan, the City has able and effective partners.
In sum, after a year of dramatic financial improvements and broad progress and momentum all around Burlington, the state of the City is strong, rising, and filled with opportunity.
With the wind at our backs, we now have the opportunity to proactively engage a new wave of municipal challenges. I see three main themes to our work ahead:
First, we must continue our work on the financial stewardship of the City with a shift in focus toward long-term challenges.
For the past 15 months, the Administration, the City Council, and our public employee unions have worked to understand the unsustainable trends faced by the City’s pension system for more than a decade. We now are engaged in collective bargaining with all four of the City’s unions. Our highest priority in these negotiations is to find, within the current pension system, solutions that end the stunning increases in taxpayer costs, restore the long-term solvency of the system, and create shared triggers to anticipate and prevent future pension problems.
We must also expand our efforts to steward the physical assets of the City.
Last fall, on Main Street near City Hall, a DPW work crew digging a new manhole uncovered a run of bored-through wooden logs about 10 feet below the road surface. These thick logs had served as water pipes for part of the downtown around the time of the City’s founding in 1865. The log pipes were abandoned long ago, however, the discovery was a reminder that building and maintaining public infrastructure have been core responsibilities of local officials since the City’s start, and that much of that infrastructure in the historic sections of the City is today quite old.
Over the last year, we have been working hard to better understand the City’s long-term infrastructure needs. We have commissioned independent reports to study the physical condition of the City’s sidewalks, building facilities, parks, and garages. Also, we have projected the level of investment needed over the next decade both to maintain our existing infrastructure and City vehicles and to make important new investments on the waterfront, the bike path, the Champlain Parkway, and downtown to support job creation and economic opportunity.
Later this week, we will submit to the City Council and the public our preliminary draft of what we believe to be the City’s first-ever comprehensive 10-year Capital Plan. This plan attempts to define the magnitude of our substantial challenge and identifies a wide range of options for a path forward that is efficient and affordable and that brings more rigor to the City’s thinking on infrastructure investments.
We look forward to launching this effort at a City Council work session next week and to a major collaborative effort among the Council, Administration, and relevant Boards and Commissions, with the goal of completing the plan together within one year.
I appreciate that interim Superintendent Howard Smith is here with us tonight. I want to thank Dr. Smith and the School Board for the work they have done to lead the Burlington School District through a challenging time. I also appreciate the willingness of Dr. Smith and others within the School District to join in this long-term capital planning effort and look for creative and efficient ways for the School District and City to coordinate our efforts. I will be including planning dollars in my fiscal year 2016 budget so the City can be effective in this effort with the District.
Our second overarching task is to continue to modernize our City government for the 21st century. As with financial stewardship, this work is well underway and holds great promise for our future.
As often has been the case over the last 110 years, the Burlington Electric Department will be a focus area of innovation over the next year. Sourcing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable generators was an important first step on our journey toward sustainability – but it was only one step.
The energy landscape is changing quickly. Every year, more Burlingtonians want solar panels on their homes and businesses, the ability to plug in their cars, and the opportunity to use their advanced meters to lower their electric bills.
All of these innovations and more have the potential to make our energy system more affordable, reliable, and sustainable. However, the traditional utility structure of the past will not deliver these changes. To succeed and thrive in this emerging environment, our municipal electric utility will need to maintain its strong financial footing and commitment to safety and reliability, while transforming into a more nimble, dynamic, and customer-centric organization that can lead our community toward true energy sustainability.
To achieve this strategic vision and position BED as a “utility of the future,” the BED team, under the leadership of General Manager Neale Lunderville, has begun a comprehensive, bottom-up reassessment of its staffing, structure, and operations. I look forward to beginning soon the discussion of modernizing BED with the new Council.
BED will not be the only operational area of the City that we seek to update over the next year. We will continue the major overhaul of our parking system, fund and execute a comprehensive study of the City’s complex permitting system, and, under the leadership of the newly created Chief Innovation Officer position, dramatically improve the City’s data collection and analysis and continuous improvement efforts City-wide.
This next year also will be important for modernizing the way Burlington regulates a number of important areas of City life.
Ride-sharing and home-sharing services have come to Burlington and are growing. These new technologies have the potential to benefit Burlingtonians – there is a place in Burlington for innovations like Uber and Airbnb. However, at the same time, after months of work and study of these issues by the City Attorney’s Office, it is clear to me that these new and evolving technologies also generate new issues and disparities that must be addressed. It is time for the City to take action on these issues. We have submitted to the City Council the City Attorney’s Airbnb report, and I look forward to working with the Council to convene stakeholders and to tailor ride-sharing and home-sharing rules that work for Burlington.
In the year ahead, we also must make progress on modernizing our downtown zoning. The last Council unanimously passed a resolution in the fall calling for new downtown zoning that will promote infill redevelopment of underutilized properties to create much-needed housing and job opportunities. It falls to the new Council to complete this detailed work and implement a Form-Based Code that will create greater permitting certainty and better architecture for builders and residents alike.
Third, we must bring focus and resources to initiatives that will expand opportunity for all Burlingtonians.
One example of this work will be to expand services for the homeless in Burlington. I recently toured with Jan Demers, the Executive Director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, the temporary, low-barrier warming shelter she has overseen for the last two months at the former Ethan Allen Club. The shelter is basic, consisting mostly of a large open room, broken up into three spaces by shoulder-high dividers and filled with green cots. While we are still evaluating the results of this new service, its benefits seem clear. Not only did the facility shelter 92 individuals from the cold of a harsh Vermont winter and reduce the use of the emergency room and detox centers, but also 14 secured jobs, 10 found transitional or permanent housing, and six entered a recovery or treatment program. To the team at CVOEO, thank you for championing this effort and ending the long debate about whether such a facility is needed in Burlington. We must now work with the State and private funders to move beyond a pilot program and find a way to permanently ensure that a low-barrier warming shelter opens before next winter arrives.
Another example of our work will be to make Burlington more affordable for all residents. For over 30 years, Burlington has identified housing affordability as one of its most significant challenges and the City, its residents, and a collection of dedicated affordable housing non-profits have worked together to meet this challenge. Through these efforts, members of our community have developed innovative ways to make Burlington more affordable for thousands of low and moderate income households, and some of these approaches – like the shared-equity home model that keeps housing perpetually affordable – have garnered national and even international recognition.
However, Burlington housing remains too expensive for too many residents. We must both expand our traditional housing efforts and pursue new strategies to address the inadequate housing supply. This month, after nearly a year of work including extensive collaboration with the City Council’s Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee, the Administration will bring a Housing Action Plan before the full Council for adoption.
We also will look to expand opportunity for our youngest Burlingtonians by creating the Burlington Early Learning Initiative over the next year. This program, announced in February, is focused on improving kindergarten readiness for Burlington children, reducing special education and other public spending over time, and breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty here in our City. The multi-year pilot will involve home visiting for pregnant mothers and new parents, scholarships for high-quality child care, and rigorous evaluation. Home visiting is expected to be in place in early 2016. Our goal in launching a Burlington Early Learning Initiative is nothing short of ensuring that all Burlington children have the opportunity to lead full, healthy, and successful lives.
Additionally, we will continue to implement the Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan developed last year. The Strategic Plan is focused on eliminating race-based disparities across all City departments, promoting inclusion and engagement of all community members, and ultimately eliminating race-based disparities in the greater Burlington community.
Since last summer, a “Core Team” of City leaders and residents of color from the community called for in the Strategic Plan have worked to begin implementing the plan. The team’s discussions have helped refine our objectives and led to important suggestions for improving the City’s job application form, our Boards and Commissions application, our Human Resources Department’s structure and function, and the type of training City leaders and City employees undertake to become more culturally competent. While this important work will extend beyond this year, we will continue to make concrete progress on our diversity goals in 2015.
Just over one month ago, we gathered here in Contois Auditorium to celebrate the founding of the City in 1865. Our predecessors created a City Charter and committed to new forms of collaboration and collective responsibility just as the City was entering its heyday as a major port for the country’s timber trade. The City’s access to both the Hudson River and the Erie Canal and to the woods of Vermont and eastern Canada fueled growth and investment in Burlington that we still see and enjoy today in our downtown and historic neighborhoods.
Shortly after its founding, the first Burlington mayor, A.L. Catlin, spoke with optimism about Burlington’s future, saying “We represent a young city, which may in time be known and distinguished as the Queen City of New England. It has just been launched upon a career that I trust will prove prosperous and happy. Its location for natural beauty is not equaled in any part of the country – and for natural and acquired advantages in a business point of view, for manufacturers and a general business-character, few places are its equal, and none surpass it.”
Once again, today, the larger forces that shape our economy and culture have aligned behind Burlington. Information technology and our transportation systems connect us to the world better than ever before. In an age when innovators and entrepreneurs can locate nearly anywhere, our arts community, authentic sense of place, traditions of public engagement, and outstanding quality of life are keeping and drawing them here, to Burlington.
We still represent a young City, and are still set in a place of unequaled beauty. In the year ahead, as we work to steward the City’s finances and infrastructure for the long term, modernize City government, and broaden opportunities for all Burlingtonians, we will begin the ambitious task of ensuring that Burlington’s next 150 years are even more prosperous and happy than its first.
Thank you and have a great evening.