Mayor’s Office

Mayor Miro Weinberger's 2013 State of the City Address


April 1, 2013
Contact:  Mike Kanarick

State of the City Address

Good evening.  Welcome to City Hall and thank you for joining us tonight.

Congratulations and welcome to our newly-elected City Councilors, Tom Ayres and Jane Knodell, who returns to the Council for her third stint serving our City.  I look forward to our work together.  And, to the rest of the Council, it is satisfying to be starting a second year of collaborative work with you.

I would like to thank our talented and dedicated department heads – many of whom are with us tonight – and the more than 600 city workers and their families who have welcomed me and a new Mayor’s Office to the team, and worked hard to accomplish the many positive results of the past year.

I want to emphasize my thanks to the families of our city workers for enduring all they do and for dealing with the often unscheduled interruptions to family time that are part of service to our city when the fire sirens toll, or the skies unleash a deep blanket of snow, or late hours are needed to meet a filing deadline.  I know first-hand about the sacrifice of our family members – so, I thank my wife Stacy – who is here with us this evening – for her considerable service to Burlington as she has gracefully held our household together through an exciting and sometimes draining first year.  And to my sweet daughter, Li Lin, I thank you for the positive energy you share with me and apologize for how long it now takes to get across Church Street.  And to my mom and dad, who are also here tonight, thank you for all you have done for me – I love you all very much.

I want to welcome Congressman Peter Welch – who does so much for Burlington and the state of Vermont – and thank him for joining us tonight.  Also, I appreciate that one of Burlington’s former mayors, Frank Cain, was able to join us tonight.  Mayor Cain did so much to make Burlington what it is today while serving as Mayor of the Queen City from 1965 to 1971.

Also with us tonight are a number of students from Burlington High School.  These Seahorses are among the hundreds of students who participated in the workings of City government as student staffers, volunteers, press corps members or in one of the classes, practices or assemblies that I attended during the Mayor’s Week in School. 

I look back on that week as the most inspiring and optimistic week of my first year in office.  I got to experience 9th grade teachers collaborating and stretching themselves to create a new kind of classroom fit for our evolving world, see the careful work our School Resource Officers do to keep our children safe, and eat lunch daily in the most ethnically diverse room in Vermont – the BHS cafeteria.

At a roundtable discussion with education, business and community leaders, social studies teacher Dov Stucker captured the reality of BHS today, saying “This is where democracy happens.”  We as a City are very fortunate to have so many teachers, administrators, students, coaches and parents working so hard at the high school to better the future of our children and our community.

We are also fortunate, here in Burlington, that democracy is happening and working well beyond the walls of the high school.  The last year has demonstrated the correcting, rejuvenating power of our local democratic institutions.  As a City, we have come together in important ways to turn around long-building challenges.  After a year of difficult choices and sacrifice, we are now headed in the right direction, with our finances improving, municipal projects moving, and the public’s trust of City governance growing once again.

We have united to make major progress fixing our most acute financial issues.  Within a month we will close on the Fiscal Stability Bond, an initiative supported by 72% of the voters and nearly every councilor that has moved us away from the financial brink.  Together, we completed a similar success at the airport, stabilizing the fragile finances of a critical institution that had seen its credit rating degraded to junk bond status.  With these and other efforts we have addressed the great majority of the more than $16 million structural deficit the city faced in June, 2011. 

The past year also has seen the City moving again, with overdue improvements of our most treasured public spaces.  A massive effort to rebuild the banks of our bike path, eroded by 2011 spring floods, is now complete.  We are on budget and several months ahead of our scheduled goal to eliminate the nearly $1 million backlog of funded but unbuilt Penny For Parks projects by the end of 2013.  Outdoor sculptures, a new concert series, a reconfiguration of the Farmer’s Market, strategic lighting improvements and new policing techniques last summer started the process of reinvigorating City Hall Park.

These successes are among the forces that have been breaking down the paralyzing distrust of City Hall that dominated the recent past.  The last year has also seen a new management team bring fresh perspectives and energy into many areas of city leadership.  The Council and the Administration have collaborated on a broad array of issues.  We are now discussing instead of ignoring challenging issues like enforcement of our Livable Wage ordinance.  Also, we are admitting and addressing mistakes when they happen – certainly I have made my share.  The successful launch of See-Click-Fix has improved municipal responsiveness and transparency.  These efforts and more will be continued and expanded in the year ahead.

In sum, after a year of collaboration between the public, the City Council and the Administration, the state of the City is much more financially secure and headed in the right direction, with a broad array of important efforts gathering strength and momentum. 

In the year ahead, we will stay focused on the same, necessary goals of putting our city’s finances in order, moving the City forward, and rebuilding public trust – however, the challenges in each area that we will confront are larger, long-standing, and will require a deeper level of change.

Financial responsibility will remain the Administration’s top priority. We have more hard work and difficult choices ahead of us.  Fiscal problems that have been building for more than a decade will take more than one year to fix.

Despite the Administration’s heavy focus on Burlington Telecom, the BT situation remains uncertain, complex, and beyond the City’s control to resolve unilaterally, and the City remains at financial risk in the $33 million lawsuit brought by CitiBank.  We will continue to diligently and patiently pursue a fair resolution of the lawsuit for Burlington taxpayers.  BT’s day-to-day operations have continued to improve.  We are now pursuing economic development opportunities made possible by the speed of BT’s network.  These efforts represent both real job creation potential, and the best hope of significant debt repayment to BT’s creditors.

The large unfunded liability we face in our public employee pension plan represents a deeper challenge that has eluded solution for an even longer period.  For the last two collective bargaining rounds the City has attempted to address the unfunded liability by pursuing a strategy of incremental adjustments to our retirement system.  While the City has secured some concessions in these years, it should be clear to us all today that this incremental strategy has not fixed the system.  In just over a decade, the cost of the pension system to taxpayers has risen dramatically, the breadth of City retirement benefit options has proliferated making the system far more administratively burdensome, employee equity and morale has eroded, and we are at a historic low-point in the solvency of the system.

We must attempt a very different approach to fix the retirement system aimed squarely at a long-term resolution that provides both predictability and fairness for our hard-working public employees who did not create the unfunded liability, and financial stability for taxpayers.  I am confident that – as this City has proven with so many other challenges – we can craft a solution here in Burlington if we all commit ourselves to finding one.

While we methodically work through these long-term challenges, we will continue to make near-term progress towards financial responsibility.  The CAO’s office will continue to implement new financial management efforts and internal controls to protect the city against financial abuse and error and will earn a far cleaner audit in 2013 than in prior years.  We will continue to reduce our structural deficits and find new operating efficiencies.

We will make this progress towards financial responsibility while, for the second year in a row, holding the line against property tax growth that threatens to push middle-class homeowners out of Burlington. 

We are fortunate that, while remaining financially disciplined, we also have the ability to keep the City moving.  We are heading in the right direction in our parks, rebuilding civic spaces that have been neglected for too long. 

In the year ahead, we will finally fulfill the commitment to our parks that voters envisioned when they overwhelmingly approved the Penny For Parks program in 2008.  We will complete long overdue drainage improvements to Leddy Field that will give the City a consistently playable softball field, a major renovation of the boathouse, reconstruction of the upper athletic field and new dugouts at Calahan Park, upgrades to the Roosevelt and Schmanska Park basketball courts, and some 20 other parks improvements.

As a result of the overwhelming support of voters last November, this summer we will see real progress on the northern waterfront as we break-ground on Waterfront Access North using federal funds and some tax-increment financing that will not impact property tax rates.  This long-planned effort to improve the site around the Moran Plant will involve cleaning up contaminated soils, better protection of Lake Champlain from stormwater pollution, burying of overhead power lines, improvements to Lake Street, and construction of an outstanding new skatepark.

2013 will also see the construction of new sidewalks that fill gaps in our pedestrian infrastructure system.  These projects will be built with regional transportation dollars secured as long ago as 2009.  Eliminating this backlog will improve the walkability of the City today, and improve Burlington’s eligibility for additional regional investments in the future.

Our efforts to get the City moving, however, are not limited to municipal infrastructure projects.  We are also moving in the right direction and will make more progress together in the year ahead towards a long-term, shared vision of our city that is even more vibrant, green, and full of opportunity for all.

After two years of unprecedented public process, PlanBTV has given us actual detailed, understandable illustrations of what this vision of Burlington looks like, separating the current planning effort from all that came before.  The PlanBTV vision includes an improved pedestrian experience throughout the city core, additional downtown housing options that strengthen our retailers and make the city more affordable, and improved car, bike and pedestrian connectivity throughout the central city.

After unanimous approval by the Planning Commission, PlanBTV is now before this City Council.  The Administration looks forward to working with the Council to see PlanBTV adopted in the weeks ahead and then – importantly – collaborating on the implementation of a predictable, understandable form-based zoning code that will actually allow the PlanBTV vision to be built.  We owe it to the thousands of Burlingtonians who have participated in the creation of PlanBTV to do this laborious, detailed work to ensure that the plan becomes a real roadmap for the future.

We will also work towards the vision of PlanBTV over the next year through our transportation and other public infrastructure planning.  We will continue to work towards the connectivity sought in the plan by making steady progress towards the construction of both the Champlain Parkway and Railyard Enterprise projects. 

In addition, at the end of this week, conceptual submissions are due for public infrastructure investments in the waterfront, consistent with the PlanBTV vision, that will catalyze additional investment in Burlington, grow our property tax base and other revenues, increase public access and enjoyment of the waterfront, and increase housing opportunities for all.  A slate of these TIF investments – improvements that will be made without impacting property tax rates – will be on the Town Meeting Day ballot next March.

We are also moving and heading in the right direction as a City in terms of our environmental impact.  In the year ahead we will make progress on many fronts towards becoming a greener city, reducing costs for our residents and businesses, and lessening our impact on climate change.

That progress will get a jolt over the next three weeks with the help of a Global Team of experts from IBM who will help us explore ways to leverage our smart grid of interconnected Advanced Meters and other resources to affordably reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  We are honored to be the smallest City in the US and the second-smallest City in the world to win a Smarter Cities Grant.  I want to welcome and recognize the global team whose members are here with us tonight, having traveled from as far away as Germany, France, Brazil, and the Czech Republic to serve our City. 

The Smarter Cities effort kicks off what will be a year of progress with BED green initiatives.  By this time next year we anticipate completing the repurchase of the Winooski One Hydro plant, supporting the construction of a third wind facility by buying its output, and supporting the development of at least 3 Megawatts of additional solar power, allowing us to reach the long-sought goal of procuring enough renewable energy to serve the city’s entire electrical load.

We will continue to promote energy-saving, congestion-relieving alternative transportation options by becoming a more bikable and walkable City.  Together, we passed two ballot items in November that will begin a substantial overhaul of Burlington's aging bike path - and the most exciting is what's still to come.  Later this month, my Administration will join with the Burlington Walk-Bike Council, Local Motion, AARP and others in unveiling a "roadmap" for making Burlington a nationally-recognized leader for walking and biking.

In the year ahead, we must recommit ourselves to protecting Lake Champlain. Our quality of life and our economy depend on a lake that is clean, and the City has significant financial interest in the creation of a statewide system for protecting our waterways that is fair, effective and efficient.  The stormwater program that we created in 2009 has been a success, providing the highest level of stormwater oversight in the State to development projects, commencing necessary system repairs, and beginning the effort to retrofit the city to reduce the impact of our existing impervious surfaces.  This commitment demonstrates that we are prepared to undertake all reasonable efforts to protect the lake, while carefully measuring our results ensures that we are spending our dollars wisely and positions Burlington to be a leader in the emerging, high-stakes, statewide stormwater debate.

And in the next year, we will take important steps to become a less wasteful city by improving our recycling and composting practices.  All of these cost-saving, quality-of-life improving, green strategies and more are captured within the revised Climate Action Plan that will be presented to the Council for adoption in the coming weeks.

Finally, in addition to being more vibrant and greener, the Burlington of tomorrow must include economic and social opportunities for all.  Here too, the City is moving in the right direction.

Burlington continues to be home to growing businesses, both large and small.  The City's South End enterprises continue to grow and evolve at a remarkable pace, demanding and justifying a variety of public infrastructure upgrades.  Downtown, we continue to work on policies for more walkable streets, parking, and increasing the amount of housing for our growing workforce.  Increasingly, we look to provide resources and energy to the growing creative economy sector, in partnership with groups like Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, Vermont Technical College, and the local universities.

The airport, a key regional asset for creating broad economic opportunity, is clearly headed in the right direction after years of struggle.  Passengers, routes, and investment by our partners in airport amenities are all up significantly over last year, and energy consumption and costs are down as the result of green initiatives and prudent financial management.  By the summer, I look forward to receiving the final report from the Airport Strategic Planning Committee created last summer by the Council and Administration together to ensure the airport stays headed in this direction.

I also look forward to receiving in the coming months a report from the Diversity and Equity Committee, which was created by the Administration and Council to engage many stakeholders and make recommendations to the City for embracing our growing diversity and reducing race-based disparities.  In the past year the City has stepped up its Cultural Competency training efforts through its involvement with the outstanding We All Belong program, and will be further engaged in this urgent work in the year ahead.

Finally, no Burlington institution is more important for creating a future with economic and social opportunity for all than our high school.  Here, too, we see Burlington headed in an exciting, positive direction.  The effort being led by the Partnership for Change to remodel the Burlington and Winooski high schools is focused on ensuring that all our children graduate with the skills, knowledge and attributes they need to succeed, and that Burlington will have a workforce that is prepared to compete in today’s global, fast-moving economy.

I am very happy that last Friday, after an extensive, national search, the Partnership announced the appointment of a director to lead this critical 3-year, $3 million grant-funded effort.  The new director, Hal Colston, who is with us tonight, is an individual who has already done much to make Burlington a great city.  On behalf of the City, I want to congratulate you Hal and wish you great success in this vital new role.  I pledge to you to do all I can as Mayor to make sure that this rare opportunity to craft a better future for all our children and our economy is not missed. 

Ultimately, that is the goal of all the initiatives we have discussed tonight – to move closer to being a city where all children can thrive whether they start life in the Old North End, the Hill Section or a distant land.  We know today that too many children in our community face too many hurdles.  However, we also know that here in the unique community of Burlington, Vermont – more so than just about anywhere else – we are headed in the right direction, and we have the energy, creativity, and commitment to get there.   

Thank you all for joining us tonight – I look forward to engaging in this vital work together in the year ahead.

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