City of Burlington, Vermont City of Burlington, Vermont

Miro Weinberger, Mayor
Room 34, City Hall / Burlington, VT 05401
Phone: 802-865-7272 mayor@burlingtonvt.gov

State of the City - 2017

Mayor Miro Weinberger's State of the City Address - April 3, 2017

Good evening and welcome everyone to our wonderful, historic City Hall.

I want to say a special welcome and thank you to Mayor Frank Cain and his wife, Mary Jane, who have attended almost every one of my State of the City addresses.  Mayor Cain, you have been a great advisor, and your long-standing commitment to this community and your family is an inspiration.

And Mayor Peter Clavelle, it is great to have you and Betsy back in Burlington full-time.  Earlier today at the COTS Daystation ribbon-cutting, I used the scissors you gave me five years ago, and I expect to use them more in the future because of the campaign you co-chaired for our downtown redevelopment.  The fact that you served this City for longer than any other mayor speaks volumes about your commitment to Burlington, and you honor us by being here tonight.

General Steven Cray, thank you for joining us here tonight on behalf of the men and women of the Vermont National Guard, many of whom deployed this year. Thank you for your service, and for representing so well all the women and men under your command.

I would like to welcome Mary Danko, our Library Director, and Noelle MacKay, our Community and Economic Development Director, to their first State of the City address and ask them to rise – both Mary and Noelle have already contributed greatly to this community. 

Now, I would like to ask the entire talented and committed Department Director team to rise.  I am very grateful that I get to go to work every day with such a talented and enjoyable team.  Thank you for your service and unwavering commitment to Burlington!

I want to thank my mom, Ethel, and my dad, Michael, for being here tonight and for all the years of wisdom, adventure, and love you shared with me. And, of course, there is one special person who makes my job as Mayor possible – my wonderful wife, Stacy, is here tonight. Stacy, please stand for a moment. Stacy – thank you for your unwavering support, sacrifice, and love during the last five years. You are amazing! And, you have done so much, even as you also help lead the King Street Center and set education policy as a member of the State Board of Education, and as we together raise our daughters. I am so grateful for your love and partnership.

And, while they are not here this evening, I’d like to thank our daughters, Li Lin and Ada, for all their love and for challenging me to be a better dad and a better person.

Good evening to my colleagues, our distinguished and committed City Councilors. Thank you, Councilors, for your partnership and passion for Burlington. And, welcome Richard Deane – I am confident you will contribute a great deal to the City Council, just as you have contributed so much to Burlington throughout your life.

I am excited to begin another year of work in this room with all of you, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you tonight about the importance of our local work at a time of troubling federal retreat, the vision of Burlington that we are advancing toward, and specific goals for the year ahead.

I’d like to begin with a story – the story of Salah and Samya, a Burlington couple I recently met at their home.

Salah began life in Sudan, moved to Libya for his safety when he was very young, and then was forced to flee again when war began. He spent three years in terrible conditions in an Egyptian camp before being admitted to the US as a refugee and arriving in Burlington three and a half years ago with no family and no English. Now, Salah is fluent, works at Revision Eyewear, and has created a wonderful home in the Old North End.

Until about a month ago, however, Salah’s time in Burlington had been a period of separation from his wife, Samya. Fortunately, Samya, who is also from Sudan – one of the countries that President Trump has tried to block entry from – was admitted to America after years of effort in February, shortly after federal courts lifted the President’s travel ban.

Samya and Salah are with us tonight. Please rise. To you both, I say welcome – marhaban. Your story of perseverance is a reminder to all of us how fortunate we are to live in this safe and thriving community. Please join me in welcoming Samya and Salah to Burlington.

Tragically, very few other families will find refuge in our City in the months ahead. As part of the President’s actions against immigration, he virtually has ended the acceptance of international refugees through at least next September. As a country, our government is now explicitly turning its back and shutting its doors to the tired, the hungry, the poor, the talented, the innovative, and the hard-working refugees and immigrants, who for so long have helped make this country, and our City, the dynamic places they are today.

This policy change will have a profound impact on Burlington. For more than 30 years, Burlington has welcomed approximately 300 New Americans each year – immigration that has made us much more diverse and culturally rich, and has been part of Chittenden County’s economic success. Under the President’s executive order, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program expects at most only 15 additional people through September, a period when we would have normally expected about 175 new arrivals.

This change represents a breathtaking departure from America’s traditional role in the world.  The beacon of opportunity and tolerance that has drawn Irish, French-Canadian, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Somali, Bhutanese-Nepali, Sudanese, and other immigrants to Burlington over hundreds of years has been shut off. 

This is morally wrong. If allowed to continue, we will undermine all that has made this nation great. We will fight – we must fight – to relight the beacon and, once again, make America a welcoming shore.

Of course, the retreat of the federal government from important areas of Burlington life does not end with immigration policy.  We are also witnessing the federal government’s abandonment of its role in cleaning up Lake Champlain and fighting climate change, funding the arts, improving American policing, and much more.

At a time when the federal government is trying to close doors and turn its back on our most pressing challenges, we here in Burlington must continue to work harder than ever to keep our doors open, and to keep advancing. Our local policies and initiatives – not fleeting federal edicts – will ultimately have the greatest impact on whether or not Burlington continues its historic role as Vermont’s city of opportunity for all. Our decisions in this room and on our local ballots will determine whether we remain a City where people of all backgrounds – long-time Burlingtonians and newcomers – are able to start a career, raise a family, grow a business, and enjoy our arts, parks, and culture. 

When we resist growth – when we reject this historic role as a dynamic, evolving City – we force the middle class, the poor, the young, and minorities out of Burlington.  As President Obama pointed out in the final months of his presidency, local government decisions that set up barriers to opportunity and investment have become a major driver of racial and economic inequality throughout our country.

Locally, the numbers show that is exactly what has been happening in Burlington for many years:  The average Burlington resident is now paying 44 percent of his or her income in rent, young households are being displaced by those that are wealthier and older, and sprawling growth in the suburbs has significantly outpaced the creation of new homes here in Vermont’s densest downtown. This sprawl has terrible social and environmental consequences, and has occurred despite the strong desires of many to live in our walkable, authentic, and culturally rich downtown.

However, that trend has now begun to change. Together this Council, the people of Burlington, and this Administration are reclaiming the vision of Burlington as a vibrant, innovative, inclusive, affordable, sustainable, and growing City.  After five years of work together, our municipal finances are better than they have been in many years and still improving; we are seeing major new investments in downtown homes and our innovative economy; we are moving rapidly to dramatically improve our public infrastructure and public spaces; we are showing the country and the world how small cities can be a major force for addressing climate change and reengineering American policing; and our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable is more robust than ever.  The State of the City is strong and advancing toward an even brighter, increasingly dynamic, and more just future.

This progress is only happening because a strong majority has voted again and again in recent years to advance toward this vision of Burlington’s future.  However, I know that some Burlingtonians also have questions about the changes we are pursuing, as well as the pace of change.  While change is inevitable no matter what we do, it is important that we listen carefully to these voices of concern, and manage the change in a manner that fulfills our long-held community ideals and values.  

In the year ahead, we will work to advance five major areas across the City: improving the character and quality of our public spaces; increasing investment in our roads and sidewalks; expanding alternative transportation options; reducing our environmental footprint; and making critical public safety enhancements.  Tonight, I will address our plans in each of these areas.

The public spaces where we gather for recreation and to advocate for important causes define us as a community.  Our recent era of parks renewal and expansion will continue in 2017.  When it finally stops snowing, we will open a new park at the northern end of the Urban Reserve, and Burlingtonians will enjoy the spectacular new alignment of the rebuilt bike path.  This summer, we plan to break ground on another new and unique lakefront park on the west side of the Water Plant, and continue the historic rebuilding of our bike path to the north.

In addition to our parks, our streets and sidewalks are also incredibly important places that host much of our public life.  In the season ahead, we will make unprecedented investments in this core public infrastructure.  Instead of repaving our normal two-and-a-half miles of roads, we will more than double that amount.  Instead of our usual mile of sidewalk rebuilding, our goal this summer is to triple that amount.

In the last year, we’ve seen progress in our transportation network with the opening of the long-awaited new transit center and the significant strengthening of our vehicle-for-hire system. This year, our work must also include upgrading our bike infrastructure.  After years of collaboration with many stakeholders, our Administration will bring to the Council for adoption this month a new Walk/Bike Master Plan that creates a detailed road map for making pedestrians safer and replacing our current patchwork of bike lanes with a true transportation network of linked bike resources.  I urge the Council to adopt the plan, so that we can start implementing it this summer, creating new protected linkages between the central and southern parts of the City. 

Also, in 2017, we will finish the creation of our Great Street standards that will guide work in the public right of way for decades, and prepare for the historic reconnection of St. Paul and Pine streets through the Burlington Town Center, as well as the 2018 rebuilding of lower St. Paul Street, where we have seen so much new investment in recent years.

In all City investment, whether public or private, we must push for common sense zoning that promotes the dynamism of great public life – turning cold facades into welcoming storefronts, transforming chopped-up sidewalks into safe, engaging streetscapes, and building smart, green structures for all residents to live, work, and play.

For more than two years, our Administration, the Council, and the Planning Commission have worked on a form-based code to implement this vision in a way that the current ordinance will never achieve.  The new ordinance – planBTV: Downtown Code – will complement the Great Street standards in helping Burlington infill our downtown and waterfront with sustainable, livable, and beautiful design. It is time to get this done: I urge the Council and Planning Commission to finish their work and approve the new ordinance for my signature within 120 days.

This new code is an important part of fixing the broken housing market that is failing to serve so many, but we will not simply leave it to the market to ensure that Burlington is affordable to all.  In the year ahead, we will continue to build upon our long Burlington tradition of housing the most vulnerable.

Earlier today, as we cut the ribbon on the new COTS Daystation, Executive Director Rita Markley spoke beautifully about treating the homeless with respect and dignity, saying that the new building is a “place of refuge for the homeless where every detail, from the windows and the lighting, to the acoustics and the wooden finishes, even the water fountain and showers – everything has been designed to make them feel welcome and respected.”

With these inspiring words in our ears, we will build on this progress in the year ahead by again funding the Burlington Housing Trust Fund at almost twice its historic level, by fully enforcing for the first time the permanent affordability of units created by our long-standing Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, by working to make sure that our low-barrier warming shelter – managed very effectively this year by Community Health Centers of Burlington – stays open next season. We will continue to support the Housing First strategies, spearheaded by the Burlington Housing Authority and Champlain Housing Trust, and supported by many partners, that have helped reduce the county’s homeless population by approximately 30 percent in recent years – a major accomplishment.

Getting our land use regulation and housing policies right will lower our climate footprint.  So will getting our energy policies right. 

The world is waking to an energy revolution, sparked by entrepreneurs, innovators, and the urgency of climate change. But as more technologies allowing customers to produce their own energy locally come to market, there is a risk that those least able to afford their heating and electric bills will end up shouldering more of the system costs. We cannot allow our renters and low-to-middle income homeowners – the vast majority of Burlingtonians – to be stuck with bigger bills and fewer chances to control their energy future.

Through our long history, we have valued the community benefit of running a municipal utility – the idea of providing every customer, regardless of income level, access to safe, reliable, sustainable power at an affordable cost. As Mayor, I have fought and will continue to fight to protect this basic tenet of public power.

I’m proud of the work that Burlington Electric has done to keep rates down under the outstanding leadership of General Manager Neale Lunderville– no rate increase in eight years and none in sight – while advancing energy innovation for its customers. This year, because Burlington sources 100 percent of its energy from renewable generation, Burlington Electric will save approximately $1.5 million by qualifying for an exemption from a state energy mandate.

As we look to the future – a future where Burlington is a net zero energy city, serving as a national role model for how to fight climate change – we are uniquely poised to take further advantage of the energy revolution. In the year ahead, we are looking to fund electric buses, delivering benefits of the revolution to our transit riders. We will add new EV charging stations and push whole-home energy efficiency, helping more Burlingtonians save more money. We will pilot utility-scale energy storage that will make our grid more resilient, and make rooftop solar easier and cheaper to install. And we are continuing to advance our district energy project with the goal of finding a cost-effective solution that will make a significant dent in our greenhouse gas emissions.

In the year ahead, we will build on our past success and keep pressing forward to ensure that every Burlingtonian benefits from the exciting energy changes that lie ahead.

I want to applaud the innovative and impactful work done by our public safety leaders, Chief Steven Locke and Chief Brandon del Pozo, as new chiefs over the last year.  Over the next year, we must continue to make new investments in and update our public safety efforts, with a continued focus on work that addresses racial disparities and the opioid crisis.

The increased number of foot and bike patrols last spring and summer had a huge, positive impact.  As of yesterday, with the change in the seasons, we have resumed these heightened patrols, but our existing resources constrain us.  We need more officers to fully implement the policing the people of Burlington want and deserve.  For years we have asked our officers to do more and more as they have responded to the dual crises of an opioid epidemic and a failing mental health system.  They have performed impressively, but it is time to get them the help they deserve.

The Administration’s Fiscal year 2018 budget will add three new sworn officers in July – increasing the size of the department for the first time in 15 years – and we plan to later add two more, increasing the number of sworn officers five percent by FY19.  In addition, the budget will include funding for new, specialized equipment and the professional education of a team of over a dozen officers. By September, for the first time, our police will be able to respond to complex and sometimes dangerous mental health calls and other critical incidents with all of the proper tools and training to successfully resolve these situations with a minimized use of force. To police this City the right way – building trust and legitimacy and stopping those that would harm the community – these are investments we must make.

Also, I intend to bring to the Council later this month an initiative to immediately and permanently add three firefighters to the department – also the first increase in capacity in 15 years.  Adding one firefighter per shift will dramatically decrease both our reliance on overtime to properly staff the Department, and the many times each year we are forced to order firefighters to cover shifts. This approach can lead to firefighters being on duty for 48 straight hours, which can negatively impact the health and family lives of our firefighters and degrade the quality of our emergency response.  More than two thirds of this new investment will be paid for by a reduction in the overtime costs the City has incurred for years as a result of our understaffing. 

I would like to note two things about these staffing increases

First, I want to remind Burlingtonians that the total municipal tax rate has actually decreased for each of the last two years, and assure voters that again, for the fifth time in my six budget years, we will not be requesting a tax increase in FY18. 

Second, the increase in firefighters is only happening now because of the data analytics program we began last fall under the leadership of our other new chief, Chief Innovation Officer Beth Anderson.  This is just one of many important successes of this initiative, which we call “BTV Stat,” that I will be speaking more about during the budgeting process.

In 2017, we will also continue to pursue regional public safety initiatives.  The threats to our safety do not respect municipal boundaries, and those boundaries should not weaken our response.

On this night one year ago, I joined other Chittenden County leaders in calling for a re-opening of the 60-year-old debate about whether we should create a regional fire and police dispatch system.  I asked Chief Locke to spearhead Burlington’s involvement in this effort and the findings of his working group are now clear: a regional system should save substantial public dollars over time, improve the quality of our emergency response, and, most stunningly, reduce response times an average of 1.5 minutes per 911 call.  I am committed to making sure that voters in Burlington will have a chance to vote for this impactful public safety improvement next Town Meeting Day, and I urge the leaders of other Chittenden County municipalities to stay committed to this course. In emergencies, seconds matter, and we will not be doing right by the people of Burlington and Chittenden County until we get this done. 

We will continue to fight the battle against the opioid epidemic on a regional basis as well.  Since November, when the Administration launched our CommunityStat program, we have been meeting monthly in this room with dozens of non-profits, public health workers, police officers, prosecutors, and state officials – and two more times a month with neighboring departments – to galvanize a robust, coordinated response to this terrible epidemic that has become, over the last decade, the leading cause of accidental death in America and in the State of Vermont.

In the weeks ahead, you will hear more about new assessment partnerships, new ways of ensuring that those struggling with addiction get help when they are brought to the emergency room, and new protocols for pretrial treatment referrals. After 18 months of focused work with our treatment providers, the waiting list and waiting times at our Chittenden County Treatment Hub have dropped substantially, and there is reason to hope that when the new St. Albans Treatment Hub opens at the end of next month, we will finally have medically assisted treatment without delay.

Further, we need to remember that getting a person struggling with addiction into medically assisted treatment is only an early step in opioid recovery.  This means that thousands of people in and near Burlington will need help for years to come to recover from this terrible crisis.

We are finally starting to understand the full dimensions of this tragedy because of the bravery of those who have stepped forward to share their stories.  I want to welcome here tonight three brave women who have helped me to better understand this crisis over the last year. 

Amanda Clayton, an engineer at our airport, lost her brother to heroin last summer and has now set up a recovery group at the Turning Point Center for family members of addicts. 

Joyce Cameron came to a CommunityStat meeting and told the heart-wrenching story of how her son Will, a Charlotte resident, an athlete, and a recent UVM grad, suffered a fatal overdose after being over-prescribed painkillers by family doctors for his chronic pain related to athletic injuries.

And Alicia Sherman came to our opioid Town Hall Meeting two weeks ago and told her story of addiction and recovery.  She began her journey as a competitive athlete taking prescribed pain medication, bottomed out in a hospital bed for 90 days with a serious infection – which ironically gave her the break from opioid use she needed to escape – and has now been clean for three and a half years, is engaged, and working as a Client Services Supervisor and Account Manager in a downtown Burlington business.

Amanda, Joyce, Alicia – please stand. Thank you for your inspiration.

We need many more stories like Alicia’s, and we must end the tragedies that Joyce and Amanda have endured.  As a City and State we have to come to terms with the fact that although we have been focused on this epidemic for more than three years, we still have a long way to go to truly free Chittenden County and Vermont from the grip of the opioid crisis.  We need to act on many fronts with urgency, aware that many lives are hanging in the balance.  We need to stop more people from getting addicted, do much more to support the recovery of those already suffering from this terrible disease, and rebuild our responsible pain management infrastructure.  This will require investment, leadership, institutional change, and far greater involvement from those who profited from the opioid trade.  I will have a lot more to say about this in the year ahead as the City continues to confront the opioid crisis as our number one public safety threat.

This is a daunting challenge, but I am confident we will succeed.  My confidence is strengthened by the words of Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, who will be speaking in this room tomorrow night as part of the Mayor’s Book Group, who wrote:

“I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is community.  If you want to keep kids off heroin, make sure people in your neighborhood do things together, in public, often.  Form your own Dreamland and break down those barriers that keep people isolated…. We don’t just sit around and take the beating.  We act.  Like Americans always have.”

A defining characteristic about Burlingtonians is that we show up.  We do things together.  We are a strong community.  In the year ahead, the City will act by continuing to invest in our public spaces, our public safety, and expanded opportunity to ensure that this beautiful City continues to be a wonderful community for all.

Completing our ambitious agenda will be challenging, however, this is what we do in Burlington. We have a long history of municipal activism that has resulted in us punching far above the weight class of a small city of 42,000 people.

And when we deliver on this agenda – which we will – Burlington will be a safer, more vibrant, more affordable, and more sustainable City for all who live, work, and visit this beautiful place.

Thank you.

 

 

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