Politics

Burlington City Council passes $96.5 million budget

The Burlington City Council meets in March. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Under the dim lights of a Church Street restaurant in March, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger painted a bleak portrait of the city’s financial outlook.

“This may be, in some ways, the toughest operating budget of any that I've been responsible for the last 10 years,” Weinberger told reporters hours after voters rejected his proposed municipal tax rate increase on Town Meeting Day. “There will be consequences of today's vote.”

Though he was denied the boost in revenue from a tax rate hike, Weinberger received unanimous City Council approval Monday for his fiscal year 2023 budget — which begins Friday and ends June 30, 2023 — without laying off public employees or cutting major city services.

Still, the $96.5 million framework required nearly all city offices to tighten their belts, though Weinberger said he would exempt the police department as well as the racial equity, inclusion and belonging department from making cuts.

In the end, the racial equity department did reduce its budget by 8% from last year. Weinberger chief of staff Jordan Redell said the difference was “a one-time cost for a sculpture” in Dewey Park. The police budget saw a 1% increase.

Though the overall budget represents a 9% increase from last year, officials said Burlingtonians should expect a lower property tax rate in late 2022 and early 2023. That’s because the state’s education fund had a $95 million surplus, $36 million of which went to property tax reduction. 

“Despite high inflation, and constrained revenue, this budget uses federal assistance and the City’s strong financial position to make progress on the community’s most urgent challenges,” Weinberger said in a statement following the Monday night vote.

Of the $2.5 million the city spent in federal coronavirus relief funds, $1.2 million went to the racial equity, inclusion and belonging department, and the office received $1.8 million overall. 

Most of that money is earmarked to pay the 10-person department’s staff, which is charged with addressing systemic racism through running inclusivity trainings for city employees, hosting the city’s Juneteenth celebration and conducting studies, among other duties.

The police department received clearance to spend $16.5 million. That includes the first phase of a three-year, $1.2 million “rebuilding plan” to beef up the agency’s ranks. Most of that money is rolled over from previous, unspent allocations that were originally directed toward officer salaries or recruitment.

In addition, the police budget doubles the size of two programs that, as part of the city’s police reform efforts, replace fully sworn officers with unarmed employees. The addition of new community support liaisons (social workers who follow up on people who have interacted with police) and community service officers (staffers who have the authority to issue tickets and respond to calls such as noise complaints) won support from Progressives and Democrats.

“We don’t have consensus around everything,” Councilor Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2, said at Monday night’s meeting, “but we do have consensus about that.”

The police budget also allocated $400,000 for the hiring of a social-service crisis team, a group of health professionals that would respond to mental health emergencies instead of armed officers. 

The budget line for the crisis team initially appeared too low to some councilors, who stressed the program should be a top priority for the department. But all 12 members of the body eventually approved the amount after Weinberger suggested that state grants could be available to fill potential funding gaps for the program. 

For as many programs as the budget funded, Bergman said the council should consider future amendments to allocate money toward other pressing issues, such as an increase in overdoses from substance use.

“There is a lot we need to do,” he said.

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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