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Burlington Voters Kill $40 Million Capital Bond, Approve Electric Department Spending



Election worker Dale Azaria checks in a voter at the Edmunds Middle School gym polling place during a special election in Burlington on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Voters showed divided support for two city administration-backed ballot measures in Tuesday’s special election, rejecting a request by officials to borrow $40 million for infrastructure projects but approving the city’s electric department to borrow $20 million for grid updates and renewable energy initiatives.

The $40 million bond — which, because it would have been backed by the city’s credit and ability to tax its residents, needed approval from at least two-thirds of voters — garnered 57.3% of the vote. The $20 million bond, which required a simple majority, won 70% of the vote.

The $40 million bond’s failure reflected concerns among some in Burlington that the city has become too expensive to live in. With many residents still reeling from a hefty property tax hike that took effect this year, some voters expressed a desire to prioritize the construction of a new high school over other expenses outlined in the city’s capital plan, such as repairing sidewalks and buying new fire trucks. 

The capital bond would have spread its accompanying tax increase over a 20-year period. At the increase’s peak in 2025, the owner of a home worth $379,000 — roughly the median value in the city — would have paid $13 more per month in property taxes.  

Mayor Miro Weinberger lamented the capital bond’s failure during remarks at a post-election gathering but said the reluctance of some residents to approve a tax hike was understandable given the timing of the vote.

Despite missing the needed two-thirds margin, Weinberger took heart that a majority of voters still approved the measure.

“The fact that a significant number of Burlingtonians feel we do need to continue making investments in infrastructure gives me energy and confidence that we should keep working on this and find a way to come back with a proposal that a supermajority of Burlingtonians will support,” Weinberger told reporters at Burlington Beer Company’s taproom in the South End.

Weinberger and other proponents of the capital bond touted it as a sound investment in the city’s assets, warning that a failure to fund such projects would make them costlier to deal with down the road. 

In addition, they stressed, the city could get more bang for their buck if they borrowed the money now, at historically low interest rates, than if they issued the bond in March when interest rates could rise as the country seeks to battle inflation. 

A sign guides voters to the polling place at the Burlington Electric Department during a special election in Burlington on Tuesday, Dec. 7. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“It’s an investment in our future, and if we aren’t making investments, we’re going backwards,” City Councilor Karen Paul, D-Ward 6, told VTDigger on Tuesday while helping voters at Edmunds Middle School, her ward’s polling place. 

Paul, a close Weinberger ally, said city leaders likely would try to hand voters a slimmer version of the capital bond during the city’s Town Meeting Day election March 1. By then, Paul said, the city could have a clearer picture of its financial horizon.

“If part of the reason some people don’t want to vote for this is the high school, we’ll know more in March about how much that will cost, I presume,” Paul said. 

The bond’s rejection casts uncertainty over the fate of Memorial Auditorium, a dilapidated civic center at the heart of the city. While the building once hosted performances by internationally acclaimed artists and a semiprofessional basketball team, it has now been deemed too dangerous to enter.  

Weinberger, who proposed dedicating $10 million of the bond toward the venue, expressed hope that the city could still find a way to salvage the building.

“If the community does want to save it, we’re running out of chances to do so. Tonight was a missed chance,” Weinberger said.  

Electric department bond

The electric department’s $20 million bond is slated to fund a host of projects, including updates to the electrical grid, General Manager Darren Springer said. Utility representatives also billed the move as necessary for the city to meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2030.

As the city expends more electricity through outlets such as electric vehicle charging stations, an investment in the city’s electric infrastructure will help the utility decrease the likelihood of blackouts, Springer said. 

“I think that’s something everyone wants, everyone needs,” Springer told VTDigger on Monday. “That’s a really important investment we need to make.”

The utility also plans to spend $325,000 to make all of its energy sources renewable. Burlington Electric occasionally generates power for the New England region using an oil-run turbine. By buying new equipment, the utility could run the turbine on biodiesel, a renewable fuel. 

The bond will be paid for using money the electric department takes in, not through property taxes. While the spending could lead to a roughly 1% rate increase five years or so down the road, Springer said, in the short term, it will allow the utility to spend money without a sudden rate hike for customers. 

A sign guides voters at the Edmunds Middle School gym polling place for a special election in Burlington on Tuesday, Dec. 7. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

New North End turns out strongest

With just over 20% of voters casting a ballot, Tuesday’s election saw a turnout on par with other special city elections in the past decade, despite every registered voter getting a ballot mailed to them.

Voters in the New North End — a section of the city that leans more conservative — came out in stronger numbers than other neighborhoods, helping to shepherd the capital bond’s demise. 

Renter-heavy wards led by Progressive city councilors — 1, 2, 3 and 8 — approved the item with the two-thirds margin it required but had significantly less turnout than wards dominated by homeowning residents. 

The capital bond still won a simple majority in every precinct except Ward 7, a New North End district. Councilor Ali Dieng, who represents Ward 7, said he opposed the capital bond because of its timing on the heels of the reappraisal.

The vast majority of voters opted to mail or drop off their ballots before the day of the election, though roughly 1,300 residents — most of them older — chose to vote in person, ward clerks told VTDigger. 

Richard Crocker, 79, of Ward 7 was one of those voters who cast their ballot in person. Crocker, who declined to share how he voted with VTDigger, said the capital bond question left him with mixed emotions.

“I very much desire to see Burlington as a safe and progressive community with good infrastructure,” Crocker said outside of the Robert Miller Community and Recreation Center. “I am concerned, however, about the impact taxwise on residents who may be less able to afford increased property taxes.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Burlington voters kill $40 million capital bond, approve electric department spending.

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