Thursday March 08, 2018
South Burlington voters were faced with a full ballot on Tuesday, March 6. With two budgets and multiple articles to consider, including a school bond of $950,500, upgrades to the Bartlett Bay Wastewater treatment facility, and a regional public safety dispatch service, voting took a little more time and forethought than usual. According to City Clerk Donna Kinville, who was reelected as clerk for another three year term, of the city’s 14,173 registered voters, 3,398 citizens, or 23.98 percent participated in the vote. Early voting continued to be a popular option this year, with 758 votes being cast via this flexible method prior to March 6, nearly the same number as last March.
The city budget passed easily with 2,171 residents voting yes and 1,137 voting no. In so doing, voters approved a total budget of $53,392,056, $15,272,174 of which will be raised by local property taxes resulting in a tax increase of 3.84 percent.
Residents also considered two other city ballot items, one of which was the source of questioning at the pre-town meeting held Monday night March 5 at the middle school.
About 75 residents were in attendance as the city and school budgets were presented and candidates for city council and school board addressed the audience.
Queries arose around Article IV, regarding the formation of a union municipal district with 6 other towns for the purpose of regionalizing public safety dispatch services. Police Chief Trevor Whipple, Fire Chief Doug Brent, and City Manager Kevin Dorn presented the concept, touting the improvements to emergency response time this item would net. Currently, Brent said, it takes an average of 4-5 minutes from the initial call to 911 for an ambulance or other emergency vehicle to arrive. With regional dispatch, it has been anticipated that 70 seconds could be shaved off this time. Whipple also cited the advantages of having ‘load balance’ in the dispatch room by having three to six dispatchers on duty at the same time; currently there are stretches of time where only one dispatcher is on duty in South Burlington. Brent also noted the technological upgrades to the E911 system this regionalization could provide.
However, some residents were not convinced. Resident Albert Gross noted the expertise of the public safety systems already in place in the city and referenced a nationwide report released in December 2017 by WalletHub naming South Burlington to be the second safest city in the country. Gross said he did not see a clear economy of scale with this proposal and wondered why South Burlington would reduce its own services to collaborate with six other communities. Councilor Tom Chittenden reiterated that this vote would simply allow the council to explore the next steps. The cost and factors needed to implement this program are still to be determined, and are largely dependent on the governance established by the participating communities as they move forward with consolidated services. Several members of the South Burlington Police Officers Association were in attendance to ask when they will have an option to weigh in on the plan; they noted that they are not in agreement with the calculation in reduced response time and are not in favor of the plan. They also voiced concern about what they anticipate will be a reduction in local services, and the public’s reduced accessibility to speak directly to dispatchers.
Ultimately, 2,329 voters in South Burlington approved Article IV, with 985 voting no. Voters in the towns of Burlington, Colchester, Milton, Williston and Winooski also approved the formation of a Union Municipal District. Shelburne citizens voted against the plan.
Article III regarding the $2.98 million bond for improvements to the Bartlett Bay Wastewater Treatment facility passed with the approval of 2,723 voters (584 voted no). At the pre-town meeting, Director of Public Works Justin Rabidoux explained that from day one, taxpayers would save money as a result of this project. The improvements will re-route to South Burlington’s system, the sewer lines from homes that have long been connected to the City of Burlington’s system. A combination of loan forgiveness and a partnership with the Champlain Water District will bring down the amount the city actually pays by nearly half and South Burlington rate payers will end up having significant cost savings into the future, even those not directly affected by the re-routing.
On the school side, the budget was easily passed with the approval of 2,271 voters. Votes cast by citizens rejecting the budget tallied at 1,085. The total approved budget comes in at $49,686,166, a 1.96 percent tax increase.
The school’s Article III, which sought approval for a bond of $950,500, was passed by nearly the same margins, with 2,027 citizens voting yes, to 1,274 no votes.
The bond issue faced scrutiny from citizens who gathered at the pre-town meeting. Several residents raised questions about the district’s long-term debt obligations and wondered if bonds would continue to be used in the future. Business Manager John Aubin explained that the district is currently making payments on two bonds, and commented that for a district this size, the debt obligation is fairly low. Superintendent David Young explained that when the district’s facilities were built years ago, bonding was used to do so, with a 30 percent match from the state. This state assistance is no longer in place. However, while interest rates with the municipal bond bank are low and there are big needs that need to be addressed at the schools, the 20-year bond seemed like the best way to ensure intergenerational equity.
The bond will cover $325,000 toward athletic facility improvements including restrooms and a training room at Munson Field, $150,000 toward library infrastructure that is necessary since the city vacated the space, and $425,000 for various stewardship and security upgrades across all five schools.
During the candidate forum portion of the pre-town meeting, current City Councilors Helen Riehle and Meaghan Emery, who ran unopposed for their seats, spoke briefly to the audience about the highlights and successes of their past work on the council. Both candidates touched upon their desire to continue work toward City Center rollout goals, the importance of affordable housing and community preservation, and open and transparent governance.
Vince Bolduc acted as moderator for the pre-town meeting forum, leading the five candidates who were vying for two seats on the school board through a round of prepared topics and questions from the audience. Incumbent Bridget Burkhardt was challenged by Michael Rozzi and Tyler Samler for the 2-year term, while incumbent Elizabeth Fitzgerald faced Laura Williams for the 3-year term. All candidates were given the opportunity to detail why they were running for the board, to weigh in on questions related to the budget and to identify their priorities for the school district. Samler and Williams emphasized their professional roles as teachers in neighboring districts and the perspective they would bring to the board during teacher negotiations. Rozzi referenced his business background, and emphasized his desire to rein in spending and to create more transparency on the board. Burkhardt and Fitzgerald each noted their experience, gained from their professional lives in healthcare and finance and the work they have done during their time as school directors, as well as their institutional knowledge as the reasons for their continued service on the board.
The school board candidates faced tough audience questions including the topics of local and statewide labor agreement considerations, state run health care for teachers, transparency, and the achievement gap between students from different socio-economic groups. A sobering question came from resident Sara Dopp who asked about school security and if the candidates felt school personnel should be armed. All five candidates were against the notion of arming teachers. Fitzgerald noted that the district has consistently made improvements to security over the years and each school has a safety team in place. Samler stressed the importance of building relationships with children and developing pro-social behaviors, while Rozzi pointed to the money in the budget for safety and security upgrades, which he completely supports. Fitzgerald added that at a recent meeting she and Young had with Riehle and Dorn, the security issue was discussed and a public hearing to discuss safety is a possibility in the near future.
Fitzgerald, who has served on the school board for 12 years was re-elected to a three-year term; the final count showed Fitzgerald with 1,884 votes to Williams 949 votes. Bridget Burkhardt, who has served for two years, was re-elected to a two-year term. Burkhardt garnered 1,674 votes while Rozzi came in with 1,052, and Samler tallied 340 votes.
The council and board will each hold a re-organization meeting before resuming their usual schedule of regular meetings.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent