Mayor’s Office

State of the City - 2014

Mayor Miro Weinberger's State of the City Address - April 7, 2014

Good evening and welcome to City Hall for our annual night of reflection, assessment, and democratic renewal.  As is our tradition, I would like to share with you the state of our City and my vision for the year ahead.

First, I would like to recognize and thank former Burlington Mayor Frank Cain, his wife Mary Jane, and daughter Susan for joining us again tonight.  When I enter the Mayor’s Office every morning, I pass your photograph from your service during the years 1965 to 1971, along with those of the 34 others who have served as Mayor of Burlington since the City’s founding in 1865.  Your photograph and presence here tonight remind me that the greatness of Burlington is built on a solid foundation of 149 years of hard work, good judgment, and shared sacrifice.  It is our responsibility to work with urgency and purpose to carry forward the legacy of progress that you and others have left in our temporary safekeeping.

I welcome back to the City Council long-time Burlington public servant and State Representative Kurt Wright and two first-time elected officials Selene Colburn and Bianka LeGrand. 

As a City that seeks to embrace its growing diversity and understands that our future success is tightly tied to our ability to be an inclusive community, I share with you what I see as the special significance to Bianka’s election.  Since the early 1980s, Burlington has officially been a federal refugee resettlement community, and over three decades, we have welcomed to Burlington New Americans from more than 25 countries. 

Bianka is part of that Burlington story, having come to this country from war-torn Bosnia as a 17-year-old, then graduating from Burlington High School, UVM, and with a master’s degree from Norwich University, then establishing herself as a business woman and teacher.  With her swearing-in tonight, Bianka has become the first member of any of these recent New American communities to be elected to this Council, proving that the ageless American story of immigration, hard work, and success that has defined our country continues.  I offer deep congratulations to Bianka and her family for this achievement and, Bianka, I thank you for what you already have done for this City even as you begin your elected service this evening.

I would like to thank former Councilors Bryan Aubin, Paul Decelles, and Kevin Worden, who have just completed their service to our City as Councilors and encourage them to stay engaged in moving our City forward.  We all have benefited from their service to Burlington.

I also would like to welcome back the eleven veteran members of the City Council.  I look forward to another year filled with debate, joint decisions, respectful disagreement at times, and partnership always, as we together attempt to put the City on the best path forward.

In addition, we are joined tonight by nearly every Department Head and many other members of our dedicated City employee team, all of whom work long and often stressful hours every day to make our community a better place in which to live.  I could not be more proud of the energetic, responsive, creative, and committed group currently occupying the leadership roles in City government.  I ask all of the Department Heads and other City employees who have joined us tonight to stand and be recognized for all that you do for our community.

Also, I say thank you to the families of our City workers, who play special roles in moving our City forward by supporting their loved ones who work so hard and give so much focus to their work to make Burlington an even better place.  One of those City worker family members is my amazing wife Stacy, who is here with us this evening.  Stacy, thank you for your unwavering support and partnership through the many challenges of these last two years.  I also want to thank my father for being here tonight, and for all he did to prepare me for this work.

Finally, I am thankful that tonight’s re-organizational meeting is taking place on the day that, at long last, we received some clear evidence that the winter of 2013-2014 will eventually end, and on an evening when the buses in our community are rolling once again.

As we take stock of the past year, I see many signs of progress and can confidently say that, after two years of focus and resolve to fix our troubled municipal finances, we have turned the corner, and the State of the City is steadily and measurably improving.  This turning of the corner is demonstrated in ways both large and small.

We know we have turned the corner because we have ended the secretive and destructive financial practices of the past.  For the first time in memory, we now follow the standard practice of generating and publicly releasing monthly financial reports and reviewing them at the Board of Finance.  Also, as part of the City’s new open data portal, the City’s general ledger now is visible to all online and updated daily.

We know we have turned the corner because the credit ratings at the Airport and the Burlington Electric Department have finally officially stabilized after dramatic downgrades in recent years.

We know we have turned the corner because State Treasurer Beth Pearce and the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank recently cited the City’s improved financial condition as the basis for a new bond issue, saving Burlingtonians millions of dollars in the years ahead.

And, most significantly, we know we have turned the corner because we have secured and are in position to fund a Settlement Agreement that will, when completed, resolve the Burlington Telecom problems that have haunted the City for more than four years.  I am pleased that the recent and important step of securing bridge financing was made possible by a local businessperson and bank – Trey Pecor and Merchants Bank – and believe that it puts the City on the strongest footing possible for completing the Settlement Agreement and for maximizing the community and economic development potential of BT.

This progress should serve as an indication that the hard work and shared sacrifices of the past two years are producing results, and should give us the confidence we need to keep moving forward.  I ask the Council, our public employee unions, and our incredibly engaged community to remember that the financial hole we were in two years ago was very deep, and our climb out is far from over.  In the year ahead, we must remain focused on financial discipline and progress towards resolution of our remaining serious financial issues.

I see four major components of the remaining financial work that we will tackle together.

First, we must finish the major financial efforts already underway.  It is critical for our financial future that we secure approval of the Burlington Telecom Settlement Agreement from the Public Service Board.  As we pursue this approval, it is important that Burlingtonians and organizations invested in Burlington’s progress remain unified in their support of the Agreement, which was unanimously approved by the Council. 

Further, we must complete the work of improving financial practices and internal controls that reduced by one third the number of negative findings in our most recent audit.  And we will continue and deepen the efforts to find operational efficiencies that reduce the cost of effective governance that have saved the City many hundreds of thousands of dollars since the beginning of fiscal year ’13.

Second, to complete our restoration of the City’s finances, we must confront directly the dramatically rising costs of both K-12 education and our retirement system to stem the unsustainable growth of property taxes we have experienced over the last decade.  The results of last month’s Town Meeting Day demonstrate that this work can no longer be avoided. 

For many months, my Administration has been taking steps to address these complicated challenges head on.

Last fall, we held a well-attended and detailed Pension Summit that identified a number of issues about Burlington’s Employee Retirement System warranting further discussion.  In response, my Administration and the City Council, in consultation with Retirement System stakeholders, created the Burlington Retirement Committee with representatives from each stakeholder group to discuss the challenges the System faces and reach consensus on a path forward.  The Committee has been meeting since January and is making progress developing a shared understanding of the drivers of our unfunded liability and increasing retirement system costs, as well as the options we have for addressing this issue.  I remain committed to finding a comprehensive resolution that puts our retirement system on a more sustainable footing and that respects the interests of City employees and taxpayers.

With respect to education costs, while the Mayor and City Council are not directly responsible for the school budget, we have a duty to ensure that the property taxpayers who we share with the School District are not overly burdened and that financial support is available for municipal services, as well as the schools.  To this end, my Administration is working to address the unsustainable trends in Vermont education costs in two ways:

First, we have secured an agreement from the Burlington School District to create a joint committee to oversee an unprecedented effort to coordinate municipal and school capital spending, explore the possibility of combining financial functions, and explore together what opportunities there are for regional savings.  I am committed to this effort being one of the top priorities of the CAO’s Office over the next year, and I welcome the partnership of the City Council in this initiative.  We look forward to starting this work as soon as the new School Board, whose members are being seated tonight, selects three representatives.

Second, I am working hard in multiple ways to impact state education policy, as it is clear that state policy-makers also need to focus on this issue if we are going to be successful at changing the trajectory of unsustainable education cost trends.  Some of the major drivers of education costs – state mandates and state interpretation of federal policy, state property tax policy, and a shrinking statewide student base – are beyond the ability of local school boards to control.  That is why I have encouraged the Vermont Mayors Coalition and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to make this issue a high priority for this legislative session.  I am pleased that the State Legislature has responded to these and other calls for action with: 1) a significant reduction in the planned statewide property tax increase for next year; and 2) serious consideration of a change to the state’s out-of-date education governance structure.   

While I am confident that these efforts will yield results over the medium- and long-term, the Burlington School Board faces the immediate challenge of passing a fiscal year ’15 budget that both respects the strong message from voters on Town Meeting Day and does right by our children.  Like the Council and the public, I am looking forward to seeing a new, complete budget to consider.  As the School Board approaches this difficult task, I urge them to put forward a budget that reduces next year’s proposed property tax increase and maintains Burlington’s strong commitment to both the elimination of racial and ethnic disparities in our schools and to the voluntary economic integration of our schools.  Our future success as a City in the increasingly global economy depends, in part, on all our children thriving in Burlington schools and growing to meet their full potential.

Third, to restore the City’s finances, we must focus on long-term, careful stewardship of our municipal assets.  In the last two years, we have taken significant steps in this direction by making maintenance and improvement of our parks, the bike path, and our municipal buildings a high priority, and the results are beginning to show.  Over the last two years, we have eliminated a long backlog of Penny for Parks projects, improving over 40 parks throughout the City, and by the end of fiscal year ’15, we will do the same with our municipal facilities, eliminating a more than $1 million backlog of maintenance and improvement projects that had been funded by taxpayers in prior years, but not built – projects that include everything from crucial life safety installations in the library to boiler upgrades throughout the City that will pay for themselves in well under a decade.  

However, we must do much more.  Overall, our infrastructure continues to degrade at a faster rate than we reinvest, and there is no comprehensive, coordinated plan for properly caring for the community assets we have inherited.  I have directed the CAO’s Office to lead an effort to craft an affordable and comprehensive 10-year capital plan for presentation to the City Council for approval no later than Town Meeting Day 2015.  This plan will include responsible investments in our roads, sidewalks, municipal buildings and parking garages, our water, sewer, and stormwater system, the bike path, parks, and our schools.  The plan also will include better management of our fleet of over 250 vehicles to reduce maintenance and fuel costs, as well as capital costs.  I see this plan as a key document for ensuring that we make good on our responsibility to leave the City in better shape than it was when we started.

Finally, to achieve long-term financial success as a City, we must increase municipal revenues from sustained economic growth.  Our City has considerable opportunity for such growth.  Our waterfront already generates more than $1 million a year in revenues that fund Parks and Recreation programs, even with the northern waterfront and southern waterfront dramatically underutilized.  There is enormous pent-up demand for new revenue-generating housing in our downtown.  Since the year 2000, our downtown has seen only about 120 new market rate homes developed.  This number is far below the percentage of housing growth experienced in peer cities during this same period, when downtown housing grew dramatically across the country for many years.  A well-planned Pine Street corridor will enhance the organic, tech-driven growth we already are seeing in this dynamic part of the City.   

Our reinvigorated Community and Economic Development Office is focused on these and other economic development opportunities.  CEDO is on its way to reclaiming its historic role as an engine of economic growth and innovation through the promotion of new ideas, new technology, new businesses, and new jobs. 

For the first time in many years, we actively are moving our waterfront projects forward with a series of new public improvements that, when completed, will leverage over $35 million dollars of additional investment and more than $15 million of new economic activity annually.  The BTV Ignite initiative, launched at last fall’s Tech Jam in partnership with many community institutions and organizations, and our emerging tech sector, promises to harness our fiber network to accelerate the growth of our creative economy.  An early win in this economic development effort came little more than one week ago with the incredibly successful launch of Generator, Burlington’s first makers space located in the basement of Memorial Auditorium.

Again, however, we have much more work ahead to grow the grand list and increase other tax receipts, while also meeting the livability, walkability, and sustainability goals of planBTV.  We will focus on a number of areas for revenue growth in the coming year.

First, in the year ahead, we will stay focused on the implementation of the voter approved improvements to the waterfront that have the potential to dramatically increase municipal waterfront revenues.

Second, we will continue to target our economic development funds and seek regulatory changes that will encourage the creation of new housing in the downtown as envisioned in planBTV.  This new housing will generate additional property taxes, while also increasing opportunities for family housing in the City, and making Burlington more pedestrian-friendly, environmentally sustainable, and affordable.

Finally, we will launch a planBTV effort for the Pine Street corridor to lay out a vision for walkable, environmentally responsible investment in the dramatically underutilized areas west of Pine Street that complements the treasured historic neighborhoods nearby.

In closing, the Administration’s top focus must remain fixing the City’s finances in the year ahead.  In addition, I am confident that, as we have done during the past two years, we will continue to move forward in many areas by sharing the governance and management of the City with the people of Burlington.  From the unprecedented, two-year long planBTV that engaged thousands of citizens in a range of public settings and online, to the rebuilding of the waterfront and the Moran building through a competition open to all, to the collaborations between our business community, advocacy groups, and institutions that are shaping City parking policy, active transportation policy, and the new economic development strategy of BTV Ignite, to pioneering the use of the SeeClickFix smartphone app to empower citizens to report and monitor quality of life issues in their neighborhoods, to opening up the City’s data so that a new generation of civic hackers can use technology to make a better Burlington, to weekly open coffees at the Bagel Cafe, City government is engaging its citizens more broadly and productively than ever before.

With so many citizens moving Burlington forward in so many ways, we know we have turned the corner, and we know our brightest days as a City are on the horizon ahead.

To the Council, to the public, thank you and I look forward to another year of pursuing this important and deeply rewarding work together.