State of the City - 2016
Mayor Miro Weinberger's State of the City Address - April 4, 2016
Good evening and welcome to our wonderful, historic City Hall for our traditional night of reflection, assessment, and democratic renewal.
We are honored to be joined here tonight by our outstanding Congressman Peter Welch who, remarkably, in a Congress that has become famous for conservative gridlock in recent years manages to move forward progressive initiatives. Thank you and welcome Congressman!
I want to say a special welcome and thank you to Mayor Frank Cain and his wife Mary Jane for joining us again this evening. Mayor Cain led the City through some exciting years in the 1960s and remains, I have learned first-hand over the years, a close observer of Burlington politics despite his defection to Shelburne a few years back!
Welcome to our Department Directors. We have three new chiefs attending their first State of the City tonight. Chief Innovation Officer Beth Anderson, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, and Fire Chief Steven Locke, please rise and be recognized. No Mayor has had a more talented and committed group of colleagues – I would like to ask our entire Department Heads team to stand and be recognized.
I would like to thank Superintendent Yaw Obeng for joining us tonight. Yaw, we are appreciative of the energy, experience, and steadiness that you have brought to the district in your short time in office, and we are excited to see where you take the district in the year ahead.
I also want to thank my wife Stacy for joining us tonight and for her unwavering support, even as she has taken on a critical community role running the King Street Center’s early childhood program. Thank you Stacy, I am so grateful for all you do for the City and our family.
And good evening to my colleagues, our distinguished and committed City Councilors. It is good to have all twelve of you back and to have the opportunity to continue to serve together as we take on many important challenges in the year ahead.
As we gather tonight, the state of the City is stronger than it has been in many years, and our future prospects are promising. As our next year together begins, we are poised to create substantial new housing, job, and recreational opportunities for all Burlingtonians.
The robust health of the City is reflected in the recent reinstatement of our “A” credit rating. This upgrade is significant: it keeps large sums of dollars here in Burlington instead of sending them to Wall Street in the form of high interest payments, and it telegraphs a signal to the private sector that Burlington is without doubt a safe, stable investment.
Importantly, we have been able to accomplish this financial turnaround over the last four years without service cuts or major property tax rate increases. This success is a tribute to the commitment of the Council, the community, and our Administration to restore our financial standing, as well as to the underlying strength of our diverse, multi-faceted regional economy. The success should give us confidence as we take on other community challenges.
The steps we have taken together to modernize local government have also contributed to our growing strength.
At the Burlington Electric Department under the leadership of General Manager Neale Lunderville, we successfully completed a broad, strategic re-organization over the last year. This re-organization has given our 110-year-old municipal utility a new and strong foundation from which to compete in the rapidly evolving energy landscape, and will save ratepayers approximately $1 million a year going forward. As BED leads through energy innovation, we are now well-positioned to build on our incredible community achievement of sourcing 100 percent of the Department’s energy from renewable generation and to succeed on our drive to complete an entire decade without a rate increase.
And through the work of our first Chief Innovation Officer, Beth Anderson, we have begun the effort to introduce an ethic of modernization and continuous improvement into City operations. Code Enforcement Director Bill Ward, as usual, has been an early adopter of this new thinking. In the first three months of this year, after working with Beth to process map his housing inspection system, Bill’s Code Enforcement Department has increased the number of inspections it completes every month by 36 percent.
Our work to improve our municipal financial strength and modernize local government is far from done. The year ahead will include much important work in these areas, and I will touch on a few highlights of it.
The largest remaining financial challenge before us is finding a way to properly steward our infrastructure. Like many New England and northern cities, we face a major test in the years ahead maintaining our pipes, sidewalks, streets, and other physical infrastructure, much of which is many decades old. Stewarding this physical infrastructure is a core responsibility of local government, and we cannot fail at this task as it has an enormous impact on the quality of life and economic future of our City.
After two years of work involving virtually every City Department, the Administration will soon propose a financing plan to significantly improve, over the next five years, our streets, sidewalks, bike path, fire and police vehicle fleets, and municipal buildings.
We also will tackle two areas of government reform that have eluded us in the past. First, in the last month we have embarked on a priority of the City Council and the Administration: an ambitious effort to improve the permit system that has frustrated so many over recent decades.
And, we will take another run at modernizing and regionalizing our emergency dispatch system. We have the potential to improve response time, better coordinate emergency services among communities, and save on the costs of operating dispatch centers in Chittenden County by upgrading our technology and partnering with neighboring communities. This is a complex undertaking that has not gotten off the ground in the past, but it is worth another try. I have asked Fire Chief Locke, who has deep experience with regional dispatch, to lead this new exploration and report back to me and this Council on the feasibility of this project by September 1.
However, the main focus of the year ahead will be expanding housing, job, and recreational opportunities for all Burlingtonians. After a period of careful planning and preparation, 2016 must and will be a year of action and implementation.
The greatest housing and job creation opportunity before us is the redevelopment of two central blocks of our downtown dominated by an outdated and declining mall.
Over the last four years – first through the planBTV community planning process and then through the collaboration of the City and property owner – a redevelopment vision has emerged that would accomplish the most significant progress the downtown has seen in years.
The redevelopment plan would, among other benefits: knit back together two critical streets closed during Urban Renewal, restoring connectivity and vibrancy to the Old North End; help address our massive housing challenge by creating 274 new homes, including 55 that are permanently affordable; refresh our downtown retail offerings, ensuring that Burlington remains the region’s pre-eminent retail destination; and generate at least $2.4 million a year in new property tax revenue.
And, as the announcement earlier today of an agreement between the UVM Medical Center and the mall property owner makes clear, the proposed redevelopment would keep hundreds of good-paying jobs in our downtown and bring many more here as well, through the creation of approximately 300,000 square feet of high-quality office space.
Before the end of the month, the Administration will propose a pre-development agreement for Council approval that will be consistent with the vision outlined by thousands of Burlingtonians in planBTV and will allow this important project to move forward. It is time for the City to commit to the public infrastructure investment and regulatory changes necessary for this vision to become a reality.
The mall redevelopment is one of several significant actions we will have a chance to complete in the year ahead to expand downtown job and housing opportunities for Burlingtonians of all backgrounds and incomes.
One of the most striking findings of planBTV is that 1/3 of our downtown and waterfront land is either a surface parking lot or underutilized property like the mall. These properties fail to live up to the housing and job potential of valuable land in the center of Vermont’s largest community, contribute to stormwater runoff problems, and generate a fraction of the city and state revenue of other downtown properties.
For over two years we have been carefully studying our parking and land use regulatory policies. In the months ahead, reforms of these policies will come before this Council. It is time for us to act to unlock the potential of these valuable downtown sites for job and housing investment that expands the promise of opportunity in our City, and also makes our City more vibrant, better resourced, more bikeable and walkable, and greener.
As we pursue these efforts to create new housing and job opportunities, we will remain focused on ensuring that our progress includes opportunities for the most vulnerable Burlingtonians. One way that we will do this is by continuing to fund the Burlington Housing Trust Fund at nearly double its historic level.
We have seen a great example of this kind of impact in the last year. We are joined here tonight by Theresa Lefebvre, who until recently served as the president of the new North Avenue Co-op, and Tim Bouvier, the current president. One hot Wednesday morning last August I toured what was known at the time as Farrington’s mobile home park with Theresa and then sat with her in the shade at a picnic table behind Fire Station Four on North Avenue. There, Theresa explained to me the challenge the residents faced attempting to purchase the mobile home park without selling off the neighborhood’s only open space. She was hopeful the residents could pay for the green space themselves with the additional revenues the park would create once they had gone through the time-consuming process of removing abandoned trailers from the park and replacing them with new, modern, energy-efficient homes. The residents needed three years of bridge financing to put the new homes in place.
Our voter-supported Housing Trust Fund gave the City the ability to quickly commit to this bridge financing, and the residents got the rest of the job done. Last November, the 225 residents and members of the North Avenue Co-op purchased the property underneath their 109 homes – and they purchased the land on their terms, without selling off its green space. The residents now control the future of their community. Theresa and Tim, on behalf of the City, we wish you and your neighbors continued success.
We also made progress on housing the chronically homeless in the last year, some of the most vulnerable members in our community. The 100,000 Homes strategy that we have been pursuing since the fall of 2014 is having an impact – 66 individuals who were identified in the October 2014 community inventory as having the most severe housing challenges now have permanent housing and supportive services.
Also, one year ago, during my State of the City address, I committed the City to having a new shelter open before the winter. In partnership with the Department for Children & Families, the City and numerous community partners, COTS operated a low-barrier winter warming shelter just a couple blocks from City Hall that saw close to 250 guests this winter. COTS not only provided critical safe shelter during the cold months, but also connected guests with social services and community resources to help move them toward permanent housing. Additionally, the state realized significant savings in their motel voucher program. I again make this pledge: Burlington needs a low-barrier warming shelter and will have one before the snow flies next winter.
Decisive action also will continue the much-needed revival and expansion of our Parks and Recreation system. In the past four years, under the leadership of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Director Jesse Bridges, we have successfully implemented over 100 parks capital projects. This includes new playgrounds, field improvements, an invigorated Waterfront boardwalk, nearly one mile of rebuilt bike path, and we’ve opened the best skatepark in New England.
The exciting thing is, we are just getting started – in our immediate future, a great era of City park building and new recreational opportunities awaits us.
In the year ahead we will see a new Community Sailing Center rise on the waterfront, and we will have the opportunity to take major steps towards creating three new lakeshore parks, to improve beach access, to realize the long-held goal of creating community recreation and gathering space in the Old North End, and to secure the balance of funding necessary to rebuild and expand the entire lakeshore bike path, as well as City Hall Park.
This broad housing, jobs, and recreation progress, however, depends on turning around the growing opiate addiction challenge in our community. In January, Police Chief del Pozo presented in detail the damage that this crisis is inflicting on Burlington. On this issue too, decisive action is needed.
In the weeks ahead, as the weather warms, I am pleased to say that we will have more officers on foot and bike patrol than at any time in recent memory, as we expand our commitment to community policing. To the greatest degree possible, officers will patrol regular beats where their presence will make a difference, building deep relationships with the neighborhoods they protect, and sending a strong warning to those who would traffic dangerous drugs in Burlington.
We know, however, that law enforcement alone will not solve our opiate problem, nor is it the most effective response for our many community members struggling with addiction. We must confront the opiate crisis as a broad public health challenge requiring a coordinated response by our medical institutions, drug treatment and recovery agencies, corrections professionals, and child welfare services, as well as by multiple law enforcement agencies.
Today, despite best efforts by many, it has become clear to everyone involved that significantly improved coordination between agencies in Chittenden County is needed. On this issue too we must act, as the City of Burlington, alongside the United Way and the Department of Health, is well-positioned to lead this multi-disciplinary coordination and collaboration.
At our meeting next week, the City Council will have an opportunity to create the CommunityStat office that will spearhead this effort. And the budget I present to you in June will include funding both to maintain our sworn officer ranks at its current historic high, and to continue this CommunityStat effort to turn back the opiate challenge.
I want to be clear that as the Police Department expands its street presence, it will be for the purpose of not only deterring crime but also building trust between officers and the community. That trust is critical to achieving our goals for public safety and an inclusive Burlington, and critical for avoiding the division and tragedy that has rocked much of America over the last two years. The heartbreaking death of Phil Grenon two weeks ago was a reminder of the difficulty and importance of this work, and of what is at stake in policing a City.
Over the last couple of years, under the leadership of former Chief Mike Schirling and now Chief del Pozo, we have taken many steps to build this trust: we became one of the first Departments in the region to deploy body cameras on all officers, made street outreach workers the first responders to most mental health calls, stopped taking surplus military equipment, created two new police community engagement specialists, outfitted our officers with naloxone kits – which already have been used to save a life and reverse an overdose – created a domestic violence specialist who is undertaking pioneering work to reduce intimate partner violence, expanded our mental health and racial sensitivity training, and joined the White House police data initiative as a demonstration of our commitment to policing with integrity and transparency.
In the year ahead, under the visionary leadership of Chief del Pozo, we will go much further. I have asked the Chief to produce a Burlington 21st century policing plan no later than July 1, 2016.
This focus on 21st century policing is consistent with our long-held commitment as a community to welcoming New Americans, including refugees from the world’s war-torn regions. Amidst a presidential campaign which has inflamed fears about immigration, and called into question America’s continued role as a beacon of opportunity and tolerance, I would like to conclude tonight by recognizing that New Americans in our community are the source of much of Burlington’s dynamism and strength.
Like the French Canadians who traveled south and settled along Lake Champlain, and the eastern European Jews and Irish immigrants in the 1800s who were uprooted from their native lands and sought opportunity here in Vermont, we see the communities who have relocated to Burlington since the 1970s driving our growth today.
We see this old Burlington story continued today by Amir Jusufagic, who is with us tonight. Amir came to this country when his native Bosnia was torn apart by civil war, operated a cart late at night on Church Street for many years, and now owns Junior’s around the corner on Main Street and operates the City’s North Beach concessions through the summer.
We see this old Burlington story repeated at Rhino Foods in our Enterprise District, where for the past 20 years New Americans have made up 20 to 30 percent of the company’s 100 employees as the business has become a major supplier for Ben and Jerry’s and other ice cream and frozen dessert companies.
We saw a new chapter of this old Burlington story on the basketball court a month ago when a Burlington High School team, including five players who immigrated from Kenya, Kosovo, and Germany, brought home the first boys basketball state championship in eight years.
In short, Burlington remains a City where immigrants are welcome and can achieve the American Dream. The task falls to us to act to keep it that way. In the year ahead, let us engage the exciting and rare opportunities before us, fulfill in this people’s auditorium the ideals of self-reliance and democracy, and shape a future Burlington where our youth, our most vulnerable, and our most recent arrivals will thrive.