Over the past couple of years Burlington, and in particular Burlington Electric Department, have rolled out several initiatives that leaders claim are meant to help low-income residents. Yet these incentives, often in the form of rebates, are handouts to a handful of individual wealthy residents while doing absolutely nothing to make our environment fairer for those at the bottom, for those experiencing climate change the hardest.
“I consider it a starting point really,” said Darren Springer, the utility’s new manager. “I think we want to do much, much more in this space. We want to make it so that every customer who is interested in electric vehicles can access them.”
Springer said the rebate is not just about helping low-income people join the energy revolution — it’s also to help Burlington Electric meet a state mandate.
These $80,000 would have been better spent adding more buses to our meek public transit system, so that buses could be more consistent. The money could have been used to run better bus services on weekends. It could have been used to give out 1300 free bus passes to low-income residents, or try a trial program of universal free buses. All of this would have done more to reduce emissions than helping 75 wealthy people, who don’t need the money, to buy a new electric vehicle.
The problem with neoliberal environmentalism, which is entirely based on individual solutions (like the class-biased bike share program above) and not community-oriented solutions, is that the folks most likely to access these services are those already with means. Our city’s ‘environmental’ programs are never used by those who we are told is the intended target. For a public utility, they sure seem focused on helping those who need support the least.
Burlington is a town of extremes. 1% of residents control housing for 50-60% of the population, totaling nearly $3 billion in property. This staggering level of wealth concentrated in the hands of 500 individuals contradicts the idea that 1) there isn’t enough wealth in Burlington to clothe, feed, house, and educate every Burlington resident and 2) that Burlington and its local housing institutions are inclusive or democratic.
The extreme wealth, and the power that comes with that wealth and control of housing stock, are in the hands of a few individuals – local colleges, local non-profit landlords, and local for-profit landlords. The few dozen board members of these colleges and non-profits, most of whom are wealthy and far removed from the ‘working class’, make important decisions that affect all of us behind closed-doors.
UVM, the UVM Medical Center, and Champlain College own a combined $1.1 billion dollars in assets, along with 7200 bedrooms serving 11,000+ student renters. While Champlain College pays taxes on most of their assessed properties (granted, some of their assessments online are so grossly low it should be laughable), UVM and the UVM Medical Center don’t pay a dime in property taxes on their combined $1 billion in assets. And since there is no local Burlington income tax, most of the income generated at these institutions, along with their tax bases, flee to the suburbs every night.
These institutions are all run by carefully selected boards of the county’s business, development, financial, and political elites, along with 6 and 7 figure CEOs. Of the 25 UVM trustees, less than half (12) are either students or legislators. Of Champlain College’s 26 trustees, several are millionaire developers themselves. Of the 17 UVM Medical Center trustees, 4 (including the $2 million-a-year-salary CEO are medical professionals). Of the 68 people in charge, at most maybe 10-15% are not in the wealthiest 20% of residents.
Local non-profit housing landlords also have their fair share of wealth and power. Combined, these organizations own a (very under-assessed) $165 million in property, while controlling 3,175 bedrooms. These organizations pay little in property taxes, under the assumption that by offering rent below-market, they are performing a social and community good.
These non-profit boards, while often made up more of professional-class Vermonters than the 6 and 7-figure Vermonters of our medical/collegiate institutions, are limited in number and scope. None of these groups have majority boards made up of the working-class or low-income clients they serve. CHT has 15 board members, 5 of whom (33%) are actual clients served by the organization. BHA has 5 wealthier board members, selected by the (also wealthy) city council. Cathedral Square has 12 board members, most of whom are much wealthier than the other two non-profit boards (including, for some reason, Erik Hoekstra of Redstone in an uncomfortable, and incestuous, conflict of interest). Of these 32 folks, only 15% likely come from the bottom 80%.
The list of our city’s 400 millionaires – for-profit residential landlords, homeowners, and commercial landlords, is long. Their combined wealth is $1.5 billion dollars and they control a total of 12,100 bedrooms.
These 500 individuals, the millionaires + board members, control assets easily valued near $3 billion. In a city where 30,000 people have $0 in property assets, this is staggering wealth inequality. Not only that, but these folks control, 22,475 beds, or nearly 30,000 renters (when we factor in the average number of residents per bedroom at 1.33), giving them direct influence over the lives of over 50% of all residents of the city.
It’s worth wondering who impacts your life more on a daily basis – Congress in Washington DC, or the 500 wealthiest and most powerful Vermonters in your own backyard? And it’s worth wondering what, exactly, can we do to give power back to renters and workers?
(You Can Read More About the Downtown Improvement District and Burlington Business Association here.)
When local government thinks and act like a business, everyone but business owners and landlords lose. Burlington’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) process shows that while ‘stakeholders’ and self-selecting and unscientific ‘focus groups’ may work for businesses, they are quite useless and even harmful for effective, local democratic government. Lousy and rushed public processes have become a hallmark of Burlington’s Weinberger administration, and the DID process was the ugliest process yet.
Just take a look at the list of stakeholders included in the 38+ person PUMA focus groups to see how these meetings were made up of predetermined interest groups, not a cross section of local residents. PUMA met with ‘stakeholders’, interest groups with power or influence in a system, while obviously excluding more marginalized and disconnected citizens.
Even the online survey was heavily skewed towards native-English speakers with high levels of wealth. DID supporters, including the Burlington Business Association, who sent out the RFP for the survey in a clear conflict of interest and blurring of government and business lobbying,touted this flawed focus group and survey as evidence of mass public support for a new business district. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that the 1,143 survey respondents, the bulk of collected ‘public’ opinion, were even asked if they supported a Downtown Improvement District.
The survey respondents were far, far wealthier and much, much older than the average Burlington resident. Those making over $100,000+ a year were over-represented by 20%, while those making under $50,000 a year, half of all Burlington residents, were under-represented by 33%. Young adults were under-represented by 31%.
” Mayor Weinberger, speaking at the Democrats’ party, said the DID expansion proposal marked a “very big change” that voters weren’t ready for. He said the authorization request left many details to be ironed out later, which made it hard to quell voters’ doubts. ” – Seven Days
The Downtown Improvement District is another in a long line of ‘public’ processes with very limited participation and predetermined outcomes. These processes are pinned on a series of lies that are designed to give the appearance of collaborative and inclusive democracy, while bowing to wealthy business and real estate interests. These lies further erode trust in our local government, further depresses daily civic participation, and leaves residents feeling powerless and disconnected from their own community.
The city of Burlington loves Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) – whether it be for the Moran Plant, waterfront improvements, the mall redevelopment, or the nontransparent private marina process – even though TIFs are seriously flawed. TIFs are sold on flimsy and false promises – from helping low income communities to boosting the economy when it wouldn’t have been boosted otherwise. On top of this, TIFs in practice are undemocratic. Politicians will ask voters to approve a supposed done deal but they often amount to a blank check finalized behind closed doors by a select few. It’s time to end TIFs and invest public funds in low-income communities.
TIFs are districts where cities can ‘leverage’ private investment by borrowing on future property value increases. While there may be some benefits, those benefits are unproven and do not outweigh the many many downsides to TIFs.
The 6 problems with TIFs:
Once you vote on the idea, you don’t get to choose the final product even if the final product is drastically different than the initial idea. See: private marina, mall redevelopment, City Hall Park.
While TIF money may have originally been used to help struggling downtowns, it is now used in mainly wealthy downtowns to improve infrastructure for wealthy land owners. For example, the mall is owned by a multi-billion dollar investment company but supposedly wouldn’t build this project unless taxpayers gave them 9% of their funding costs for free. TIF money never seems to be used for programs to support those in poverty, like funding new low-income housing.
TIFs hurts our public schools by taking desperately-needed millions out of the education fund for 20+ years, as TIFs money is split 75/25 education fund and general fund. The money used to improve our downtown never reaches Burlington’s low income children.
TIFs raise rents and cost of living for everyone else by accelerating property values in urban areas past typical levels of inflation. They, like Downtown Improvement Districts, lead to accelerated gentrification.
TIFs are sold as being integral to spurring new development, but are based on a false and unproven assumption that the development wouldn’t have occurred ‘but for’ TIF money. In fact, the ‘but for’ clause means ‘but for that specific design/development plan’. So we have no way of knowing if some level of development would have occurred regardless. Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer has made is clear that this ‘but for’ clause is impossible to prove or audit.
The reality is that MANY people, when they vote for TIF, they vote for a specific project without realizing they’re writing a blank check for politicians who may be more interested in making wealthy interests and donors happy over ensuring the community meets everybody’s needs.
In the end, TIF money gambles on the future with little oversight or proof of its effectiveness. It takes badly needed property tax revenue, money that our schools desperately need, and gives it to investors so that they can boost their profits and wealth for the next 20 years while taxpayers pick up the tab. It’s time to end TIFs and fund local government through taxes, and if necessary, bonds.
UVM and Champlain College have a lot of power in shaping our community, in both positive and negative ways. We often hear about how 40% of UVM’s students living off campus increases non-students’ housing costs, and I’ve written about how as two of the city’s largest landlords with a captured client base, their exorbitant room and board costs likely distort rents citywide. There’s a third way that UVM and Champlain College contribute to Burlington’s gentrification, and that’s their admissions processes which are highly geared towards very wealthy families.
Thanks to the New York Times we can see a snapshot of UVM and Champlain College students’ economic backgrounds and how they compare to Burlington’s residents in 2016. Both schools have high rates of students from very wealthy backgrounds and low rates of students from very poor backgrounds, particularly when compared to Burlington residents. The median college student family is nearly 3 times as wealthy as the median Burlington family.
According to their data, not only are more than half of UVM and Champlain students from the top 20% wealthiest families, but only 4%-6% of students came from the bottom 20%. College students in Burlington are wealthy at 3 times the rate that Burlington residents are, while Burlington residents have 5-8 times higher rates of poverty than college students in Burlington.
These schools function less like educational institutions striving towards equity and more like businesses trying to maximize profits and growth. That’s the reason students and faculty are fighting against the administrations’ cuts to programs that aren’t ‘making money’.
More students come from families making $2.2 million a year than families making under $22,800 a year. A full 8,000 students come from families wealthier than 82% of all Burlington households.
NYTimes data shows that the trend of students coming from families much wealthier than Burlington residents has been consistent or increasing for decades. While UVM has become slightly less accessible since the early 2000s, Champlain College has catered towards significantly wealthier students and is their student body is now comparable to UVM’s.
How does an admissions process that caters to wealthy students effect low and moderate income Burlington residents? How does this process hurt low-income college students? How is such a model sustainable, and how do we keep Burlington from becoming an elite town for wealthy students and the business community that caters to them? Lastly, who is holding UVM and Champlain responsible for their role in hastening gentrification and making life harder for Burlington’s low income residents including low-income college students?
Vermont is finally taking some first steps to address our slavery-supporting past. By focusing on the past, however, we continue to overlook our own state-sanctioned modern day slavery – Vermont’s barely-paid incarcerated workers.
State Senator Ingram, a lead sponsor of a bill to remove slavery from the state constitution, had this to say,
“I think we should remove slavery in the Vermont constitution because slavery is a morally reprehensible and antiquated institution, and it reflects badly on the state and it sends the wrong message, especially to people of color.”
When we look at state sanctioned slavery, this statement feels incredibly inadequate, foolishly ignorant of the overt and institutional racism currently within our own prison slavery system. While Vermont is only 1% black, incarcerated Vermonters are 9% black, a number that hasn’t changed in years. Wages for these incarcerated Vermonters haven’t changed in THIRTY YEARS, and they are paid on average between 25 and 40 cents PER HOUR.
If you worked 40 hours a week for an entire year, you would make a whopping $830. Per. Year. Their CEO, head of Department of Corrections, makes over $115,000 a year, or 140 times these workers’ pay. Is this not also morally reprehensible? Does this not reflect poorly on the state of Vermont?
This system, akin to slavery, has many repercussions. Incarcerated working Vermonters, disproportionally black, aren’t protected in the same ways that non-incarcerated Vermonters are, as it’s not clear if workers could form a union and strike. These workers can also be compensated in non-monetary ways, like reduced sentences, rates decided at the whim of their bosses. Imagine your boss one day deciding to pay you in Kit Kats instead of money! Lastly, these workers aren’t part of the Legislatures’ $15 an hour minimum wage bills, so they will be further left behind.
If the state legislature is serious about ridding the state of slavery, in the past and present, there are many impactful ways to give formerly incarcerated prisoners a chance at succeeding. Banning state-sanctioned prison slavery, and requiring that incarcerated workers get paid atleast the state minimum, would be a better way to repair the damage we do to past and present slaves.
This is Part 4 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 2, 3, are here.
The BBA is made up of very wealthy business owners and homeowners, many of whom have little personal interest or stake in Burlington, who care more about bringing wealthy tourists to the city than serving regular Burlington residents, while a handful of BBA Members have extra influence. The BBA doesn’t represent ‘mom and pop’ businesses or Burlington residents in any real way, and when they support the Downtown Improvement District it is not to the benefit of most Burlington residents and workers.
When one thinks of the Burlington Business Association, they think of restaurants, bars, and retail shops owned by Burlington residents. The truth is quite the opposite.
40 members, or 22% of the BBA, has neither a shop or home in Burlington. Think about that. 1/5th of the BBA has ZERO reason to be members of the BBA in the first place! For all we know, maybe they’re actually interested in helping their own community’s economy and sabotaging ours.
81 members, or 40% of the BBA, aren’t even based in Burlington. While they have a financial stake in Burlington, it’s hard to believe they’re equally invested in Burlington when their main investment is somewhere else; they cannot be as committed to Burlington as a small business owner living in Burlington.
Of the ‘Small Businesses’ that politicians and the BBA and their supporters love to fetishize so much, only 27% of small business owners even live in Burlington. Why is our city good enough for them to extract wealth from but not good enough to live in, to raise their kids?
When you think of Burlington, what comes to mind? Restaurants, bars, retail, right? It turns out that the BBA barely represents the storefronts in Burlington, the whole reason our downtown is doing so well in the first place. Only 22% of the BBA membership represents the service industry, while a full 56% of BBA membership represents tourism, other business organizations, businesses that support other businesses, finance/lawyers, and real estate industry.
These are businesses that aren’t small mom and pop shops trying to make or sell a product. These are large corporations, businesses that try to attract wealthy business partners, clients, or tourists. These are not businesses that support, nor are invested in, the vast majority of Burlington workers or residents.
On top of this, the BBA members who live in Burlington are extremely wealthier than the typical Burlington resident, with an average home value of $560k-$640k, 75-100% higher than the MEDIAN home owner, putting them into the top 10-15% of wealthiest Burlington residents. In fact, only 1 member who lives in Burlington has a home that is priced below the median.
Lastly, as a little quirk, the BBA has a handful of incredibly wealthy members who have multiple businesses registered to the BBA, thereby giving them more influence over the BBA agenda. (Oddly enough, many Burlington departments are members of the BBA in a very strange blurring of lines and potential conflict of interest.)
It’s worth asking if the folks supporting the downtown improvement district have Burlington’s best interests in mind, and why our councilors overwhelmingly approved a rush plan supported by wealthy business lobbyists.
This is Part 3 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 2, 4, are here.
The Burlington Downtown Improvement District was rigged from the starts, with the vast majority of members coming from the Business Community, particularly the Burlington Business Association.
I came across a document (also shared by other community members just a few days ago) that was way too important to save. It shows the level of coziness and conflicts that exists between our elected officials and businesses in Burlington.
6 out of 9 members of the Downtown Improvement District Advisory Committee were either directly picked by, owned businesses that were members of, or have business partners that work for, the Burlington Business Association.
A total of 66% of the committee members were directly influenced by the Burlington Business Association, and 89% were influenced by the BBA or by the Mayor, who seems to favor the BBA over other local political advocacy groups.
In an RFP written by the Burlington Business Association in 2017 for the new Downtown ‘Improvement’ District, I came across two parts that raise serious concerns about the entire process as we vote in a couple days to privatize our downtown and put it in he hands of a select wealthy few.
The DID Working Group includes representatives from key organizations leading the project for the City of Burlington. It includes a single representation from the following organizations: a.) Burlington Business Association, Kelly Devine b.) Church Street Marketplace BID, Ron Redmond c.) Community and Economic Development Office, City of Burlington, Gillian Nanton d.) Department of Public Works, Patrick Mulligan 2 This group meets regularly, up to weekly. This group will work closely with the selected contractor to provide input, direction and local leadership on the project. They will serve as the key point of contact for the contractor. Kelly Devine of the Burlington Business Association will be the key contact and will call on DID Working Group members to support this effort as needed and as their areas of expertise warrant.
Okay but at least the DID Advisory Group was democratic, open to the public, and received input from lots of citizens, yes?
Turns out Google also comes up with a whopping 0 results for any meeting times or announcements of public meetings made by the advisory group. But I did find a city document suggesting 21 people voted on the question of a DID in a ‘Town Meeting’. Yes, 21 people, along with the 9 DID advisory members, may have decided all of this for us.
Downtown Improvement District Advisory Committee Members with Nominating Organization
●City Council: Councilor Adam Roof ● City Council: Downtown Resident – to be appointed ● Church Street Marketplace: Jeff Nick, Chair ● Mayor Weinberger – Legal Professional – Robert DiPalma, Paul, Frank & Collins, Burlington Resident ● Mayor Weinberger – Financial Professional – vetting of candidates underway ● BBA Nominee, Downtown Property Owner – David Schilling, Investors Corp of Vermont ● BBA Nominee, Downtown Office Tenant – Ashley Bond, University of Vermont Medical Center Manager of Property and Real Estate ● BBA Nominee, Downtown Retail Tenant – Kara Alnaswari, Leibling ● BBA Nominee, Marketing Professional – Rich Price, Select Design
Please, think about this.
The committee that has been paraded around as fully supporting the privatization plan was formed 4/9ths by the BBA, 2/9ths by the Mayor who supports and works closely with the BBA, 1/9th the Church Street Marketplace Chair who is a member of the BBA, 1/9th a citizen chosen by the council and 1/9th Councilor Roof who runs a business in a clear conflict of interest with an employee of the BBA (and his roommate).
…he was excited that after nearly two years of work the proposal was before the council to send to the Charter Change Committee. “From the beginning there was one real guiding principle that we knew we must operate from if this eventual proposal was going to earn the support of a majority of this council and of course the voting public. We must ensure this proposal be built upon a foundation of both common ground and common good in so far that it must deliver both economic and social vitality to our downtown for the benefit of our entire community. I believe that after a lot of work this proposal strikes that balance.”
Could anyone help me understand how this Downtown ‘Improvement’ District process was done in a thoughtful, democratic way, where the vast majority of residents and workers were fairly represented in this drastic change, and how the public was included in this advisory committee? Because this looks like clear conflicts to me.
This is Part 2 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1, 3, 4, are here.
It turns out that while the city is comfortable handing over more power to a body of business owners, 75% of whom live outside the city, they are uncomfortable giving noncitizen residents, and communities affected by the Burlington Airport, a meaningful voice in our politics.
*Post Updated to reflect more accurate numbers of 75% of Church Street Business owners live outside Burlington and roughly 1 out of 4 live in Burlington.*
Another argument that folks who support Burlington’s Downtown Privatization District have made is that most of the ‘small’ business owners on Church Street are local. (How are we defining small? Does Lake Champlain Chocolates count? If we go by federal definitions, businesses with 480 employees count as small…when we don’t define our terms it’s tougher to have honest conversations, which is likely the point of the rushing the privatization plan in the first place. And more importantly, even if our elected officials don’t care as long as their agenda passes, we lose trust in our local government.)
But what does local mean, particularly in the context of democratic government institutions, and why is Mayor Weinberger and most Burlington Councilors excited to give power to certain folks who cannot legally vote in the city while denying said power to others?
First, we need some graphs for context!
(All data was gleaned from Secretary of State Website, Burlington Property Database, or from the Church Street Marketplace Website, so some newer businesses may not have been included on this list. Happy to share data with anyone who asks.)
As we can see, although rents are making it difficult for non-boutique small businesses to compete on Church Street, only about 1 out of every 4 Church Street businesses is corporate/franchise owned. Seems pretty damn good, right?
Here’s where things become a bit trickier:
Of the 62 small businesses on Church Street, only 17, or 28%, of the owners live in Burlington – only 1 out of every 4 businesses on Church Street are owned by a Burlington resident. It seems that Church Street is less of an economic opportunity for Burlington residents/small business owners and more of an economic engine for those who live outside the city.
On top of this, most of those local business owners are also homeowners, and they tend to have 40-65% more homeowner wealth than the typical Burlington homeowner (numbers on the city website are often only 80-85% of true value), putting local Church Street business owners in the top 20ish% wealthiest of all residents. This is not to mention Church Street landlords (a blog post for another day). With businesses reaping 20% profits since 2008, owners have taken all of the pie while leaving downtown workers in the dust.
So why are we handing more power over to these business owners, when 1) the Mayor and many Council Democrats were skeptical of even allowing non-citizen residents to vote several years ago and 2) the Mayor has made it clear he would not share power with the citizens of communities, like Winooski and South Burlington, who have seen serious negative effects by the Burlington Airport? Why is it okay to give power away to a handful of business owners but not to majority-locally elected democratic councils and governments?
And lastly, if the city gave a damn about workers and marginalized populations, why wouldn’t they be making sure that most of the seats of this new privatized downtown district went not to those with power and wealth, but to those who continue to be left behind in Burlington’s steady economy?
This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on how Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington Business Association don’t represent regular Burlingtonians and are using their influence to push a rushed and rigged Downtown Improvement District that gives a handful of wealthy folks even more power at the expense of actual Burlington residents. Parts 1,2, 3, 4, are here.
Folks who support the Downtown Privitization Plan will tell you our downtown economy is struggling. Yet what they don’t tell you is that while Burlington Business owners have seen profits grow by 20% in real value since 2008, downtown workers have not shared in any of those profits.
The many pro-business/anti-worker folks (along with the powerful Burlington Business Association) supporting the city’s rushed Downtown Improvement District, a plan that does absolutely nothing to meaningfully increase democratic participation or offer inclusion to marginalized voices, will tell you that this privatization plan needs to happen. They will offer the same arguments they used when trying to sell us the ongoing $22-million-public-funding mall debacle.
They will tell you that Burlington’s economy, and Church Street, are dying, and the only way to save our entire city is not by making sure everyone has enough money to afford basic necessities so they can support local businesses, but rather that we hand over even more control to wealthy non-Burlington landlords and non-Burlington businesses.
Why is it that Burlington is a good enough place for many of these folks to make money, on the backs of workers and renters, but not a good enough place for them to live, raise children, and spend said profits in?
The data, however, doesn’t support their doom-and-gloom claims for business owners (for workers and renters, that’s a different story for another day). In fact, Burlington’s economy is very stable and has been growing well (20%) since the Great Recession, particularly when we account for weakened unions, runaway healthcare costs, growing income and wealth inequality, and stagnant wages for most residents.
Meal, Rooms, and Alcohol sales have grown by 69% when factored in for inflation.
The picture is much less rosy when we consider Retail and Use taxes, which have been hit hard by many factors, including the problem that most workers pay over 40% of their post-taxed income to rent.
Sales and Use taxes have decreased by 50% when factored with inflation.
It looks like maybe the Burlington economy, while not a magical beast that can defy national and international trends of wealth inequality and global capital ravishing local economies, has been quite consistent.
The truth is that since 2005, when accounting for inflation, our economy has shrunk by 1.1%.
Since January 2009, Burlington’s retail and food economy have grown by 20% overall, so why again do we need to hand over power to the few folks who have actually made money since the 2009 Recession?