Anticipating revenue drop, Burlington considering significant budget cuts

The former site of the 1/2 Lounge displays a sign offering the space for rent across from City Hall on Church Street in Burlington on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Burlington is facing significant cuts to the city budget in response to a decrease in revenues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The city is anticipating a $10 million reduction in revenue for fiscal year 2021. 

The Board of Finance met Thursday for a discussion of a “bad case scenario” budget in the event the city does not receive significant federal funding to help cover the gap. The meeting served as a chance for the city to receive feedback on possible cuts from the board and other members of the council. 

The budget must be approved by the City Council by the end of June under the city charter. 

Mayor Miro Weinberger said the proposal reflected a worst case scenario, in which the city doesn’t secure 20% of normal revenues, receives no federal support and experiences a slow economic recovery. 

Katherine Schad, the city’s chief administrative officer, laid out potential areas for cuts, stressing the need for a “shared sacrifice” across the city. 

While it is possible the city could receive some federal stimulus funding, to be safe it is planning as if that money is not coming, Schad wrote in a memo to the City Council. 

The proposed cuts include freezing all union and non-union cost-of-living adjustments and pay increases, reducing the number of seasonal employees hired across all departments and reducing overtime by 20%. The city would also delay hiring firefighters for the new ambulance until fiscal year 2022. 

The city has decided not to move forward with planned tax increases for public safety and the Housing Trust Fund that voters approved in March “in recognition of the financial emergency many Burlingtonians face,” Schad wrote. 

Proposed cuts also include reducing professional and consulting services, reducing travel and training for city workers and reducing funding of the city’s early learning initiative.  

Other proposed cuts include reducing funding for arts and events, reducing support for Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and funding for the Vermont Workers’ Center designated accountability monitor. City Council initiative funding and council expense accounts would also be cut. 

Katherine Schad, left, Burlington’s chief administrative officer, and Mayor Miro Weinberger, right. Photo by Jacob Dawson/VTDigger

Even with those and other reductions, the city is still looking at a gap of $1.8 million, Schad said. City departments could face further significant cuts under this scenario, she said. 

Schad wrote that the city is not planning on long-term borrowing to cover operational, day-to-day costs. 

“Deficit borrowing of this type could both negatively impact our credit rating – dramatically increasing our costs over time – and negatively impact our future capacity by committing future Burlingtonians to pay for our current budget challenges,” she wrote. 

The city is also aiming to maintain a 5-10% balance in the Unassigned Fund Balance by the end of fiscal year 2021 to ensure ongoing financial health, Schad said. 

Councilors expressed concern about the cuts, particularly the cuts to the Vermont Workers’ Center designated accountability monitor, NPA and councilor funding, which many councilors use to pay community members to help with research and other tasks.

Councilor Brian Pine, P-Ward 3, asked Schad if the city was aiming to avoid layoffs in its work. 

Schad said the city did not list avoiding layoffs in its budgeting principles as the city did not want to set false expectations for employees. However, she said that the city was committed to treating employees fairly and has been trying to avoid layoffs and furloughs. 

Pine suggested furloughs of higher-salaried city employees as a strategy to avoid layoffs for city employees who make less. 

The Board of Finance and City Council will continue to discuss possible cuts in future meetings as the city works toward finalizing its budget for the next fiscal year. 

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Aidan Quigley

About Aidan

Aidan Quigley is VTDigger's Burlington and Chittenden County reporter. He most recently was a business intern at the Dallas Morning News and has also interned for Newsweek, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor and the Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is a 2018 graduate of Ithaca College, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Ithacan, the student newspaper. He is a native of Trumbull, Connecticut.

Email: [email protected]

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