Burlington, Vermont city councilors approved the 2021 budget Tuesday night with less than two hours to spare before the new fiscal year.
The Burlington City Council planned to vote on the budget Monday but recessed at about 1:45 Tuesday morning, returning at 5:30 that afternoon to continue deliberations. With a midnight deadline looming, the budget debate became strained. The proposed budget included immediate funding of $1 million to create a racial equity and justice fund. A resolution included wording to have a formal declaration that racism is a health crisis. Ward 1 Progressive Zoraya Hightower also posed a resolution affecting the police department, which had become a point of contention in the wake of calls for police defunding. “I move that in the resolution regarding the annual preparation of budget for fiscal year beginning July 1 so that the whole clause reads: Be it further resolved that except for hiring of a police chief no vacancies in sworn officer positions in the police department will be filed will be filled until a functional assessment of the department is completed and the City Council resolves otherwise except that if staffing drops below 74.”
Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, weighed in with concerns about how the resolution would affect attrition and the union contact. “If the amendment as proposed goes through, I think we are truly putting our constituents at risk. We are certainly putting them at risk of having to go into emergency staffing. And I don't believe that's what our constituents want.”
A number of other amendments to the budget were offered and councilors spent hours arguing over the minutiae of line items. In one case East District Progressive Jack Hanson wanted to adjust funding for seasonal workers. “I've identified a number of cuts that would actually allow us to restore some of these seasonal positions. Even if we can just restore one that to me is worth it.”
Process was often questioned. In this case Ward 4 Democrat Sarah Carpenter questioned Hanson how his resolution would accomplish its goal. “It really seems quite backwards to me actually. And I appreciate what you’re doing. You’re trying to not add costs to the budget. But with no endgame clear, and I don’t even know what the expense of the endgame is, it’s just troublesome to me.”
Ward 3 Progressive Brian Pine chastised councilors for the raft of last-minute changes to the budget. "This approach to council involvement in the budget is a significant departure in the way our city functions. It's going to be laborious to debate each one of these. If any councilor had a plan for what they wanted to do for reductions and increases, that's something that could have been developed throughout this process. This didn't just arrive. So I have a problem with that.”
Council President Max Tracy: “Councilor Hightower are you looking to be recognized?”
Hightower: “This has been a rough council meeting and at times unexpectedly petty council meeting.”
Tracy: “Councilor Shannon go ahead.”
South District Democrat Joan Shannon: “Thank you. I think Councilor Hightower’s of the word petty pretty much summed up this meeting. I have never seen anything like this in my years on the council. And to have a balanced budget that accomplishes all the goals that we have accomplished. We furloughed no one we laid no one off. I am really proud of the budget that has been presented here tonight. And to be debating $30 and $50 and $500 amendments all night long on a $200 million budget is the most absurd thing I have been through.”
Less than two hours before the midnight deadline, city councilors passed Burlington’s $78 million general fund budget on a 9 to 3 vote. Those opposing were Progressives Jane Stromberg, Perri Freeman and Jack Hanson.