Voters in Burlington will make the final decisions in November on two bond issues: a half cent tax increase dedicated to the bike path and an advisory referendum on the legalization of marijuana and hemp.
On Monday night, the City Council plowed through a heavy agenda that included approval of several items that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. The marijuana advisory vote, proposed by Progressive Max Tracy with Democratic support, passed with only three no votes. Mayor Miro Weinberger’s $9 million “fiscal stability” bond proposal was also approved, but did spark debate over the timing, whether the amount is large enough, and bike path funding.
Kurt Wright addressed the council for the first time since his defeat by Weinberger in the mayoral race last March. Wright said he was “disappointed” with the mayor’s decision to “pull major funding sources” out of the mix for bike path development, mentioning a one percent rooms and meal tax increase that was dropped from the agenda.
“I don’t think the issue was properly vetted,” Wright said, suggesting that a fiscal stability bond vote could wait until next March.
Weinberger countered that his administration is moving “full speed” on the bike path. He pointed to a combination of funding mechanisms that will make around $4 million available over the next few years.
Progressive Vince Brennan argued that the ceiling for issuing general obligation bonds should be raised to $12 million, and also linked the issue of fiscal stability with bike path funding. Rachel Siegel, also a Progressive, suggested that voters may not feel they are “getting anything for the $9 million,” while including $3 million more dedicated specifically to the bike path could improve the item’s chances of passage.
Most board members nevertheless agreed with the assessment of independent Karen Paul, who sponsored the fiscal stability item on behalf of the administration. “The day of reckoning has come,” she explained, but $9 million should be sufficient to restore stability.
Burlington is now seeing the long-term economic impacts of almost $17 million that was spent on Burlington Telecom, Paul explained. As a result, the city uses extensive short-term borrowing to pay its bills. When Moody’s downgraded the city’s credit rating in June, it cited “high reliance on cash flow borrowing to maintain financial operations” as a main reason.
In a community newspaper column released this week, Weinberger argues that the $9 million bonding authority will “replace an endless cycle of rolling, short-term debt with long-term debt that we can and will pay off.”
The interest to be paid by the city will be largely offset by money saved on short-term interest. The bond is projected to add 2.32 cents to property tax bills, about $58 a year for the owner of a $250,000 property.
Independent Sharon Bushor preferred the larger amount suggested by Brennan, but was willing to support the administration’s proposal. She added, however, that “this points to a process problem,” and defended the criticism of Republican Paul Decelles that no other alternative has been presented.
“There was little discussion of this option,” she said. “I’m not sure I’ve done my job.”
Brennan’s amendment was defeated, and the council approved the $9 million bond item 13-1. Decelles’ was the only no vote. It also passed a ballot item requesting voter approval of up to $6 million in debt authorization through tax incremental financing (TIF) for waterfront development.
The vote on a half-cent tax increase ballot item for bike path improvements and maintenance passed unanimously. “It’s not the money,” explained Democrat David Hartnett, acknowledging the desire of Wright and others for a bigger commitment. “It’s the statement. We’re going to have a world-class bike path.”
Council gets personal on pot legalization
Most of the speakers during Monday’s public forum were there to support the ballot item asking whether local voters “support the legalization, regulation and taxation of all cannabis and hemp products.”
Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, a member of the House General and Military Affairs Committee, described the advisory vote as a “free survey” that will help lawmakers when they consider decriminalization of marijuana next year. “This will help inform my vote,” she said.
Another Burlington lawmaker, Rep. Chris Pearson, also expressed support, adding that at least two other local legislators “are also interested in having this item on the ballot.”
During the council’s discussion, many of the comments incorporated personal family and moral considerations.
“As a parent this is a tough one,” said Decelles, who mentioned an informal poll he conducted of about 20 people in his New North End ward. When he asked them about legalization, the reaction was strongly negative. The division was closer – 8-12 — when he substituted decriminalization.
“My kids are a bit older,” noted Democrat Norm Blais, a co-sponsor of the ballot item, but the issue “boils down to hypocrisy.”
The decision also posed a challenge for Democrat Bryan Aubin. Torn between hypocrisy and the message approval might send, he described himself as “struggling with both sides.” However, he considers a local advisory vote “just a litmus test.”
Bram Kranichfeld, a Democrat and Chittenden County prosecutor who deals with drug-related crimes, argued that “we need to rethink our policy” and called the decision facing the council as “more of a vote for democracy.”
For Brennan, who has two preteen children, a compelling issue is the “inequity in the legal system” based on color. He considers the referendum “an important move in the right direction.”
Democrat Ed Adrian, who recently announced his resignation from the council at the end of this month, reminded colleagues that the issue has come up at least three times before. Adrian joked that he would be shocked to discover that most councilors haven’t at least tried pot, and concluded that “there is a place for marijuana use in our society.”
Hartnett acknowledged that “decriminalization would be a positive step.” But he explained that he has seen marijuana ruin the lives of too many people to support an item suggesting legalization on the ballot.
Dober recalled discussing the issue of marijuana use with his kids and worried that the referendum could lead to problems. “I don’t want to see Burlington with people publicly smoking pot,” he said. “Morally, I can’t support this.”
Bushor urged Dober and Decelles to give residents in their wards who agree with them “a chance to vote no.”
Seeking some common ground, Tracy suggested that the vote could also become an opportunity to discuss the risks of substance abuse. “We can catalyze that conversation.”
The council voted 11-3 to place the cannabis and hemp advisory vote on the ballot. Dober, Decelles and Hartnett voted no.