The New Burlington Town Center Is Already Hurting Working Class Residents

I have been a very vocal critic of the Burlington Town Center for several years, mainly because the development relies on trickle down housing and trickle down economics to help low income residents. A recent article in VTDigger about UVM Medical Center’s expansion to the BTC, and the pressure and ‘passion’ Mayor Weinberger used to persuade them to move there, shows how the Mayor’s policies consistently hurt more residents, especially vulnerable ones, than help them.

Sources said the mayor lost his cool at the meeting and reminded hospital officials about the sweet deal they had for city services, though Weinberger said that argument was “not a major part of the conversation,” largely because the city’s hands are tied for another decade plus.

(As an aside, the Mayor’s ‘passion’, which has been described to me as temper tantrums, a good source tells me is a big reason why beloved former Library Director Rubi Simon decided to leaver her job and move out of state over a year ago.)

Now that the hospital will be paying an extra $1,00,000 a year, who will be paying for it? As the article makes clear, “patients”. It’s as if the mayor is so insulated from the yearly 8%-10% yearly increase in healthcare costs and premiums, that adding another $1,000,000 onto the backs of overworked Burlingtonians remains somehow overlooked. Not to mention that UVM Medical Center will likely use this as an excuse to continue paying MUCH less than the fair share of a $1 billion business should be paying for their fees in lieu of property taxes.

Who will benefit from the Burlington Town Center? Businesses on and around Church Street, landlords, hotels, and restaurants. Bringing people to the downtown core, even just for a few hours, means they will spend some amount of money there. The city will likely see a small increase in sales tax and alcohol tax revenue. Property taxes, however, will remain stagnant for 20 years, due to voters’ majority to support the TIF vote (supported almost unanimously by city councilors except Max Tracy). Instead of getting upto $1,000,000 a year in badly needed revenue, we will have to wait until the next generation is voting and having children.

Who will lose from the Burlington Town Center? Workers, especially low-wage workers, service workers, and now anyone who uses the UVM Medical Center (which is, essentially, everyone because they have a monopoly). Wages for service workers continue to remain stagnant, and likely the wealthy Church Street business owners, most of whom don’t live in Burlington, will end up pocketing any extra revenue.

“This decision is highly defensible” after all the factors are weighed, Weinberger said.

As long as those factors don’t include the vast majority of Burlington workers and service workers? Mayor Weinberger, the working class hero.

The Boves are Slumlords and the City Shouldn’t Work with Them

We, as a community, are at a crossroads. Recent policy decisions by our current administration continue to put the welfare of businesses and wealthy landlords over the needs of our residents. But we can change that! A case study can be the Boves family, especially local landlord Rick Boves, shows us how if we let developers and landlords build for the good of the city, even when they have caused serious damage to residents, we send out a message that large landlords can play by a different set of rules.

Folks who have never rented from the Boves may not know that, as landlords, they leave much to be desired. In fact, after researching articles for this post, I have zero qualms calling them slumlords. As a former renter, the apartment wasn’t kept nice, where mice and house centipedes were regular guests, where you could still see bits of carpet where the floor met the wall. It wasn’t fixed up from the previous tenants before I moved in, and it cost a decent deal more than it was worth. So it is fair to say I’m a bit biased about the Boves as landlords.

Fortunately for us (but not for their tenants), there is quite an extensive history of the Boves’ treatment of their tenants. In 2013, the city held the restaurants’ liquor license due to over 40 housing codes they refused to resolve at their crumbling George Street apartments. I used to live on Monroe street and had the misfortune of walking by these miserable apartments every day. I cannot imagine how miserable it felt to live inside them.

You’d think, after an article like that came out shaming the Boves, they would spend a few dollars to at least make their apartments look decent on the outside. I think any reasonable, thoughtful landlord would admit their mistakes and try to change. But the Boves made no such efforts. In May of this year, with another 38 code violations still pending, the Bove family decided to knock down the apartments to build newer, pricier apartments (and a hotel), which their current tenant certainly couldn’t afford.

In 4 years, they have received over 78 code violations. 

It gets worse. The renters in those apartments were all very low income residents, some of whom I’ve been told even worked for Boves. If this feels like a Charles Dickens novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. These folks lived in abysmal housing, where “violations including broken windows, leaky plumbing, a cracked toilet seat, failed caulking, defective cooking equipment, and cracked walls and holes in the ceiling” were left unfixed. These aren’t the sort of violations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix – they are the type of reasonable fixes ANY landlord should make.

Instead of fixing up the apartments, the Bove family has moved their tenants to other buildings and are knocking it down to build luxury housing. What are the odds that the old tenants will be given affordable units?

Once, when Boves was cited for  ‘(L)live electrical wires dangling from a ceiling” at a North Williams apartment, the place was deemed uninhabiatble by Code Enforcement. What did the Boves have to say?

“You can write whatever you like. It doesn’t much matter to me.”

Now, the city, supported by Mayor Weinberger and by CEDO Director Noelle McKay, are considering selling a parking lot to Boves so he can build a boutique hotel. Land is a hot commodity in Burlington, and land this close to downtown, with support, could easily be converted into MUCH needed homeless or very low income housing – hell, it could and should be used to give Bove’s former tenants a decent place to live.

If this development happens, and if the city supports this development by selling off land, we will be sending a really terrible message, one where if you ignore our local laws, if you treat fellow human beings like shit, you will be rewarded.

We need to send our elected officials a message that this type of behavior should NOT be rewarded. Please email Director McKay, please email your city councilors and come to the city council meeting in a few weeks where councilors will vote on whether to sell land to Boves. They clearly do not deserve to be landlords, never mind to build new hotels or apartments in our beautiful city.

Burlington’s Early Childhood Education is in Crisis

As a preschool teacher, a graduate of the Snelling Center’s Early Childhood Leadership Institute and as a 2017 city council candidate who campaigned for universal publicly funded early childhood education, it is fair to say I’m pretty passionate about early childhood education, especially at the public policy level. Last year my school even wrote a letter to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education to discuss how much it costs to run a high quality top-rated program, how hard it is to run that program and how everyone in the system suffers due to a severe lack of funding.

While our own Mayor Weinberger promotes his market-based funding scheme for increasing early childhood education in the city, (twice now remaining relatively silent on the matter in non-election years), now is the time to discuss the many, many challenges Burlington’s early education community is facing, and how these challenges are bringing many centers onto the verge of a full blown crisis of care. Since last May, I have reached out to Weinberger’s office multiple times, but my request to meet with him about these issues have been repeatedly ignored. So I’m hoping that if I put my concerns out into the world, maybe just maybe this will make its way to our mayor and he will choose to listen.

Here are the biggest issues.

1) I take no joy in writing this, as I know firsthand the pressures of keeping a sometimes chaotic room full of children safe. That being said, there are real problems right now with several of the ‘high quality’ programs already operating in Burlington, where two centers have lost a STAR, one because children were left unattended and another because no one knew a child had wandered several blocks away from the school. Our STARS rating system does not take into account the work and cost needed to adequately support families with trauma, living through drug addiction, poverty, etc. A program can have 5-STARS but still be unprepared to work with the 70% of young Burlington children who come from homes making below 200% of the federal poverty level. Most, if not all, highly rated programs struggle acutely with these challenges.

2) Centers have real trouble retaining teachers, especially high quality teachers, and some centers have yearly turnover rates as high as 50%. That’s essentially every teacher leaving ever 2 years. Not only do centers struggle to build consistent teaching teams and a clear set of values and expectations, but children who see staff high turnover suffer academically. For children who already come from families where adults are constantly coming into and out of their lives, this can be incredibly stressful and triggering.

3) The typical early childhood educator works two jobs, because most of the best private early childhood educators in the city are paid less than $16 an hour, or $33,000 a year, while the city’s 2018 livable wage with health benefits is only a few thousand dollars less, at $29,619 a year, while neither come close to covering Burlington’s high costs of living. Teachers end up coming to school tired and short-tempered, either because they are burnt out from being tired/sick from overworking, stressed financially, or both. Public schools are incredibly attractive alternatives: while teachers in public schools put in more hours of work during the week, they are compensated, with the help of strong unions, upwards of 50%-70% more than private preschool teachers and early educators, to say nothing of the myriad vacations, health benefits, CTO time, tax breaks, loan forgiveness programs, and secondary education/professional development benefits. When even the Bagel Market on Shelburne Road offers a starting salary of $15 an hour, it’s hard to feel like your community values your work.

4) Most centers also have trouble retaining substitute teachers for when staff are sick, which is why one highly rated center last year had to close their doors for several days at a time due to lack of staff. Imagine what this does to overburdened staff, who may not use sick time even when they should so as to not burden their center. It happens a lot more than you think.

5) Schools often lack the necessary professional development/trainings to prepare teachers to work with children with high levels of stress and trauma due to generational poverty, drug addiction, learning delays, and English Language Learners. My school regularly enrolls ‘problem children’ from other highly rated centers in the area. These centers, which as our mayor will tell you, are a business that should make money, do not have the capacity to deal with these children (often class size-ratios, 8:1 children to teachers, are too high to effectively manage, never mind teach, but that’s the only way to try to break even as a business!) and often parents say they and their children feel much more respected and valued over their previous center.

6) School are ill-funded.  If not for the United Way, my own center would be tens of thousands of dollars in the red every year, just to cover operating expenses. Meanwhile, our executive director, with a masters’ degree and over two decades of experience, makes $45,000 a year. Neither staff nor lower-middle class and working class families win in this system.

7) To reiterate, early education will always be, and should be, a money losing business! It’s a terrible business to get in to because our community has recognized that education from K-12 is not a money-making business but rather a public good. I wish Mayor Weinberger agreed.

8) No centers really want to expand. It’s hard enough to make ends meet, keep children safe, hire competent staff, all the while according to the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission,  a high-quailty toddler/infant slot costs over $35,000 a year. In most centers, the preschool classrooms ends up subsidizing infant and toddler classrooms, all of which are subsidized by charity, small grants, families (who can’t afford it), and most importantly ridiculously low paid teachers and staff.
Adding money to the system right now will be like building a new bedroom on a burning house. Let’s correct the problems current centers face BEFORE we add more capacity.

How does Burlington Deal with Violence and Mental Health?

https://ccsearch.creativecommons.org/image/detail/LycqjDdoHUIQnCPb9bkH4g==

Burlington is no stranger to police shootings. Four years ago a mentally ill man was killed by police officers in the New North End, and last March a mentally ill man was killed downtown in his home by police, while this August our city councilors overwhelmigly passed an ordinance to criminalize behaviors often associated with homeless people. It is not clear what, exactly has changed in those 4 years, or how this new ordinance will help our growing mental health crises. We as a community need a clear plan, increased public education, and outreach to local communities affected by this crises about how to best help those in need. As a city, we need civilian oversight of our police department to ensure that our police policies are constantly monitored for equity and consistency, we need to support further deescalation trainings for our officers, and stronger mental health services and increased funding for alcohol and mental health treatment for our homeless. By doing this we can make sure we treat our homeless neighbors with compassion, fairness, and respect as members of our community, while also recognizing the unique challenges they face.

There is no question that there are some people downtown who make this city unsafe for everyone, but a lot of folks living on the street are doing their best to survive with complex trauma and years of substance abuse with the added stressor of homelessness. There are no easy answers to this growing crises of inadequate mental health services, growing poverty and income inequality, which can make those of us who have homes and strong support networks feel self-aware of the privileges we take for granted. As Kelly Devine, BBA director, recently summed up, “Everyone should feel comfortable downtown.” Yet we must do more than make everyone comfortable – we must treat these homeless folks as our neighbors even in the face of discomfort – and we should hold our elected leaders to the same expectations – or else our language will more closely treat our homeless as if they are invaders, undeserving of our city’s typical forward-thinking, progressive policies. This sort of language will inevitably hurt everyone. What incentive do homeless folks have to be decent if we treat them as outsiders, and what incentive do wealthier folks have to treat them humanely if we are constantly being told they are so different from us, so much more violent, so much outside our community that we must create laws specifically for them?

A clear plan forward led by our homeless residents and mental health workers would be ideal for helping our homeless, especially since opinion by our politicians is so divided. Councilors Tracy and Dieng want to put more money behind treatment, councilors Wright and Knodell want to treat the symptoms of homelessness, Chief del Pozo and Mayor Weinberger want to lower the visibility of homelessness so that there are less downtown public safety concerns, while also protecting our nonviolent homeless population. We need mental health professionals and those who struggle with the affliction to lead the community around helping our neighbors, as we have seen work so well with the opioid epidemic.

As an aside, I believe that it is a noble goal to protect all residents including our homeless, but moving our vulnerable populations away from the public will allow the violence in our homeless community to be less contained and less visible. Would the man at City Hall Park who had his throat slashed survive if he was out in the woods at a homeless encampment? The death of homeless resident Amos Beede last year leads me to believe the answer would be no. All the more reason to work towards integrating our homeless residents into the larger community, so that we can keep all members of our community safe regardless of where, or how, they live.

We must remember that we are working to help people, not simply solve a problem. Homeless folks not only need more patience from us, they deserve it. While it is easy to pass judgement, the real emotional and physical struggle that our homeless neighbors suffer daily is something few of us understand, which is why it would be best if we began listening to our homeless experts – our homeless and mental health professionals who work with them – and give them voices at the table when it comes to formulating new ordinances and laws, on and off a civilian-controlled police oversight commission. By doing this we can ensure that new ordinances are written and policed equitably, that we help our homeless with treatment and compassion, and by working with more marginalized voices, we can create a stronger community for all of us.

*Updated* The Death of Burlington’s Accessibility Committee

*Update* I heard through the grapevine that the city is looking to revive the committee. I hope they will reach out to all the folks who left, especially committee chair Ralph Montefusco, and work to make sure this committee has the access and voice it deserves.

*Update 2* – I asked the Mayor’s office for comment on Monday August 21, but have not gotten a response.

 

Something has happened to our city’s accessibility committee. Here were the members in September 2015.

 

Here is where the committee is at today.

 

What happened? Ralph Montefusco, former chair of the committee, had this to say at an August 7th city council meeting:

“On March 18, 2013, the Committee presented an Accessibility Strategy and Plan to the City Council. We identified strategies and action items for increasing accessibility to the City of Burlington’s programs, infrastructure, and workforce. The plan was received by the City Council, and action was taken to increase membership on the Committee to include representatives from the Burlington School District, AARP, Burlington Parks & Recreation, and the Howard Center.

The Committee continued to meet monthly and bring a range of City stakeholders together to address accessibility needs. However, after some initial success, the Committee began to fall apart. We lost staff support and attempts to communicate with the Administration led nowhere. The final straw was when we attempted to get some new members appointed and were informed that those appointments weren’t made because the Committee somehow wasn’t even on the list of annual appointments. Today, there is only one person listed as a member and meetings are no longer being held.

My message to you today is that, just as in 2012, the Committee has atrophied. Consider what this mean for inclusion in our City and what message this sends to our citizens.”

It would appear that Mayor Weinberger could not be bothered to meet with the committee or take their suggestions into account over the course of a couple years. Business members, community members, and even the Director of Church Street Marketplace felt so ignored they left the committee. This is concerning for a few reasons.

1) This administration is full throttle on new developments. How much of this new development doesn’t and won’t meet accessibility requirements? How much of our new city will be inaccessible to folks who already face disenfranchisement and discrimination? 2) What other boards and commissions are being ignored by the mayor – is he so focused on development and attracting capital that he is leaving behind other equally important, socially-focused commissions? 3) Who is left to advocate for these folks on the city level? Who will make sure those with accessibility concerns can feel safe and comfortable and as full members in our community?

Up until a few years ago, when my diabetic father had one of his legs amputated, it had never occurred me whether Burlington was an accessible city. Trying to get around the city with him, in a wheelchair or with a walker, has helped me realize just how much work is left to be done. But many people, for better or worse, don’t have someone in their lives who can help them come to these realizations. All the more reason to have an accessibility committee that is respected.

You can watch the video here, starting at 22:50. Full transcript below.

______________________________________________________________________________

Good Evening. My name is Ralph Montefusco and I live in Ward 4.

At your October 15, 2012 meeting, the Burlington City Council tasked the Mayor with revitalizing and making appointments to the Burlington Committee on Accessibility. Those appointments were approved on December 3, 2012.

The Committee, made up of City staff and community members, was specifically charged with developing a strategy and plan to address accessibility in the City, including reviewing and updating the previous mission statement, suggesting the needed frequency of reporting accessibility needs to the City Council, and devising a process to assess the City’s accessibility needs.

On March 18, 2013, the Committee presented an Accessibility Strategy and Plan to the City Council. We identified strategies and action items for increasing accessibility to the City of Burlington’s programs, infrastructure, and workforce. The plan was received by the City Council, and action was taken to increase membership on the Committee to include representatives from the Burlington School District, AARP, Burlington Parks & Recreation, and the Howard Center.

The revised Mission Statement says “The City recognizes that communities excel when all citizens are able to fully participate in all aspects of community life.  The Advisory Committee on Accessibility shall assist and advise the Mayor, the City Council and City departments on ways to increase opportunities for people with disabilities and meet the needs of people with disabilities by encouraging full and equal participation in all aspects of life.  This includes the identification and removal of architectural, procedural, programmatic, attitudinal and communication barriers, and strong advocacy for policies, programs and services that meet the needs of people with disabilities.

The Committee continued to meet monthly and bring a range of City stakeholders together to address accessibility needs. However, after some initial success, the Committee began to fall apart. We lost staff support and attempts to communicate with the Administration led nowhere. The final straw was when we attempted to get some new members appointed and were informed that those appointments weren’t made because the Committee somehow wasn’t even on the list of annual appointments. Today, there is only one person listed as a member and meetings are no longer being held.

My message to you today is that, just as in 2012, the Committee has atrophied. Consider what this mean for inclusion in our City and what message this sends to our citizens.

Thank you for the time.

How Can We Fight Opioids with Progressive Policy?

“no drugs” by Anderson Mancini is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rising fentanyl use in Vermont is incredibly scary. According to the Vermont Department of Health, the synthetic opioid was to blame for half of the state’s 104 overdose deaths in 2016. While fentanyl acts on brain receptors in a similar way to heroin or morphine, it is fifty to one hundred times more powerful, thus drastically increasing its lethality, especially when ingested unknowingly with heroin laced with the substance.  While there is no question that lawmakers and the community are united in wanting to stop the use of fentanyl by our relatives, friends, and neighbors, there is uncertainty and disagreement in discussing how to best curb its spread and abuse. A plan by the House and Senate to impose harsher penalties on individuals dealing fentanyl, supported by Mayor Weinberger and Police Chief Del Pozo, in an effort to stop its spread, is a tactic whose efficacy has not been proven in research or study.

The new law aims to make penalties for possession a maximum of two years in jail and a $10,000 fine, and selling four milligrams of any drug containing fentanyl would cost a maximum of 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

While fentanyl distribution should be vigorously discouraged, studies on “tough on crime” policies have shown inconsistent results, and have failed to establish clear correlation between tougher sentencing and reduced distribution. Moreover, if the end goal is to decrease the use of fentanyl and other life threatening opioides, “Achieving better health outcomes for drug users cannot be shown to be a direct result of the enforcement approach.

Instead, I would advocate for the state to continue increasing funding for mental health supports, as well as providing robust treatment services to those struggling with substance use, and establishing better supports in rural areas. Such a strategy is being implemented in Alberta, Canada, where doctors hope demand reduction and greater safety features will decrease demand and distribution of the substance. Policies to better fight the opiate epidemic include stricter controls on opioid prescriptions, more training around fentanyl use, and no abrupt withdrawal or tapering of opioid medications for those in treatment.

Here at home, State Rep. Selene Colburn (Burlington, P/D) recently spearheaded a bill that would offer medication-assisted detox and treatment in Vermont state prisons, which seems a promising approach to a complex problem. Locking up dealers for longer is a classic example of treating the symptom, not the problem. If the state is to make lasting gains in the fight against opiate addiction it must increase outreach and funding for proven and effective treatment methods, rather than simply trying to cut the drug off at the source. As time has shown, there will unfortunately always be emerging drugs and opportunities to get high, and so the best course of action is to help alleviate the conditions pushing Vermonters to use, and to increase supports for long-term users who are in need of help.