Carbon fees, just-cause evictions, retail cannabis on Burlington’s ballot March 2

Desy Papper

One of the sample ballots for Burlington’s Ward 1 in the city elections March 2. The election ballots are different in each of the eight city wards. On Town Meeting Day this year, Burlington voters will decide a crowded mayoral race — and seven ballot questions.  Many of the March […]

One of the sample ballots for Burlington’s Ward 1 in the city elections March 2. The election ballots are different in each of the eight city wards.

On Town Meeting Day this year, Burlington voters will decide a crowded mayoral race — and seven ballot questions. 

Many of the March 2 ballot items represent significant policy changes. Voters will consider giving the city authority to impose carbon fees on buildings, stronger eviction protections for tenants and ranked choice voting in city council races. They will also vote on whether to allow cannabis sales in the city.

Ballots were mailed to registered voters on Feb. 10 and 11, and are expected to arrive early this week. If you have not received your ballot by Feb. 19, you should contact the city clerk’s office.

The city recommends getting your ballot in the mail by Monday, Feb. 22, to ensure it is counted. There are also several drop boxes around the city that will be open until March 1, which you can use instead. See here for more details on how to mail in or drop off your ballot.

Polls will also be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m on March 2 for in-person voting. Each of Burlington’s eight wards has its own polling place — you can locate yours here. And if you’re not yet registered to vote in Burlington, there’s still time. You can register online, or at your polling place on election day. 

Question No. 1: School Budget

Voters will decide whether to approve the Burlington School District’s proposed $95.1 million budget, up 4% from the current school year.

The district has incurred major unplanned expenses in recent months, after toxic PCBs were discovered in the high school building and forced the school to relocate. Even with this curveball, however, the budget increase is roughly in line with growth over the past two years. 

“Our district faced two generational challenges in one year. Covid and PCBs,” Superintendent Tom Flanagan said at a January city council meeting. “And so we knew that the impact was going to require that we be very fiscally conservative, mindful that we need to work within our means this year.”

To help balance the budget, the district shaved $1 million from operating costs. The school board also eliminated vacant paraeducator positions, prompting an outcry from some district staff who say the loss could harm students.

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For a hypothetical homeowner whose property is worth $250,000, the property tax would rise 6.9% as a result of the new district budget. The relatively high tax increases are largely due to a reduction in the state’s appraisal of local property value, rather than the budget growth.

Question No. 2: Airport Commission Expansion

The second ballot item, if passed, would add a representative from the town of Winooski to Burlington’s airport commission. Currently, there are five members on the commission — four from Burlington and one from South Burlington. The group oversees the airport’s budget and some of its operations. 

The proposal would also add another Burlington representative to the commission, bringing the total number of commissioners to seven.

Burlington International Airport has long been a point of contention between Burlington and  neighboring towns. While Burlington owns the airport, it is located in South Burlington — and the significant noise impacts from both commercial flights and the F-35 fighter jets fall heavily on nearby Winooski.

Over the years, Winooski has repeatedly requested a seat on the airport commission to give the city “a voice, and a way to be involved,” Mayor Kristine Lott explained at a January commission meeting.

In a recent memorandum of understanding, the cities of Burlington, Winooski and South Burlington all proclaimed their support for the expanded airport commission, and vowed to collaborate on noise mitigation efforts. 

Some Burlington representatives on the airport commission say they oppose the change. Commissioner Bill Keogh called it a “political move” by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to help atone for excessive noise from the F-35s. “If this issue passes, soon to follow [on the commission] will be Williston, Richmond, Colchester, and so on,” he said. 

The airport commission expansion is one of four proposed charter changes on the ballot. All charter amendments need approval from the Vermont Legislature before they go into effect. 

Question No. 3: Thermal Energy Regulation

The second charter change on the ballot would allow Burlington to collect “carbon impact” fees from property owners whose buildings use fossil fuel heating systems.

If voters pass this item, no carbon tax could immediately be imposed — any carbon fee would have to be approved by voters in the future. The charter change would, however, give Burlington the authority to move policies forward that could levy such fees, incentivizing use of electricity to heat buildings.

“Do we want the city to be able to play an active role in getting buildings off of fossil fuels? That’s really the question that we’re asking,” said city councilor Jack Hanson, a proponent of the change.

The charter change was approved 10-2 by the city council in December, with councilors Ali Dieng and Franklin Paulino voting against. The proposal has the support of Mayor Weinberger, who sees it as an important piece of his plan to reach net zero fossil fuel use in Burlington by 2030. If all of the city’s buildings had electric heat by 2030, that change alone would move the city 60% of the way toward the net zero goal. Critics say the proposal relies too heavily on electricity from the carbon-dioxide-emitting McNeil plant.

The city has pushed through a number of incentives for weatherization and building decarbonization. But a more ambitious plan to require electric heat in new construction stalled in the fall when the city realized it did not have the legal authority to levy fees on carbon use in buildings. 

Councilor Dieng has expressed concern about overregulation, a worry echoed by interest groups campaigning against the charter change. Although one of those groups, led by several members of Vermont’s Republican Party, has branded the charter change a “burner ban,” passing the ballot item would not put any ban into effect.

Question No. 4: Ranked Choice Voting

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Burlington voters will again consider ranked choice voting.

The proposed charter change would implement a system of ranked choice voting for all city council races. It would have no impact on mayoral and school board elections.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates by preference, instead of casting a single vote. In a ranked choice election, if no candidate holds an initial majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and those votes are redistributed according to voters’ preferences. That continues until a majority winner emerges. 

Under Burlington’s current system, candidates need only 40% of the vote to win an election. If no candidate reaches 40%, a runoff election must be held. 

Proponents say the ranked choice system allows for better representation of voters’ views, and encourages a more diverse field of candidates. City councilor Zoraya Hightower and former Gov. Howard Dean have led the charge for the change in Burlington, calling it “a chance to make our democracy more fair and more functional.”

Burlington already has a storied history with ranked choice voting. In 2005, voters implemented the system for mayoral elections, sending Bob Kiss to the mayor’s office in 2006 and 2009. When Kiss’s administration was besieged by scandals, some in Burlington launched a campaign against the ranked choice system, which they thought had allowed him to win without sufficient support from the public. They succeeded. In 2010, ranked choice voting was repealed by a close margin.

In July 2020, the city council voted 6-5 to put ranked choice voting for all city elections to a vote in November. Mayor Weinberger, however, vetoed the proposal, saying he felt it would be “divisive.” The March 2 ballot question, which was narrowed in scope to city council races, was approved 7-5 by the council in October.

Question No. 5: Just Cause Evictions

Vermont law allows for “no cause” evictions — meaning that, in some circumstances, landlords may evict tenants without a legal reason, often by declining to renew a rental agreement.

On March 2, voters will decide whether to change Burlington’s charter to include new protections for tenants against such evictions. A “yes” vote on the question would prevent landlords from terminating a rental agreement without “just cause,” with some exceptions. Similar protections have been implemented in other cities and statewide in California and New Jersey.

Local tenant advocates have long pushed for just cause protections for the city’s renters. “We believe every tenant in Burlington deserves the right to stay in their homes,” Christie Delphia of the Burlington Tenants Union said at a recent town hall on the ballot item. Advocates say the policy would offer needed stability for tenants, helping to protect them from unjust or discriminatory evictions.

Some landlords, meanwhile, have petitioned against the proposal, saying it would unfairly limit the discretion they have over renters and undercut their ability to set a time frame for a lease. No-cause evictions, wrote landlord Kathleen Brisson in a letter to city councilor Joan Shannon, “should be a fundamental right of a property owner.” 

Under the new charter language, landlords could still evict tenants for nonpayment of rent, for breach of a rental agreement or for breaking the law. If tenants do not accept “reasonable, good-faith” renewal terms on a lease, that would also be considered just cause for eviction. What would not justify an eviction under the new policy, however, is the expiration of a lease.

Certain properties would be exempt from the restrictions, including: owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes, in-unit rentals, properties being taken off the rental market, and properties that need “substantial renovations.” Sublets would also be exempt. Furthermore, the charter language suggests an initial probationary period for tenants before just cause protections take effect. 

The proposal prohibits landlords from using “unreasonable” rent hikes as de-facto evictions, although the charter language does not specify how that would be measured. If the charter change passes, the city would nail down the specifics of the eviction protections in an ordinance.

Question No. 6: Retail Cannabis

When Vermont legalized recreational marijuana sales statewide in October 2020, the bill included an “opt-in” provision for municipalities — meaning towns and cities must hold a vote on whether to offer local retail cannabis licenses.

Ballot item six brings that question to Burlington voters. If the item passes, cannabis retailers could set up shop in the city as of October 2022. 

The city council selected the fall start date in an effort to create a more equitable cannabis market. According to Vermont’s statewide legalization timeline, established medical dispensaries could begin selling recreational marijuana in May 2022, five months before new cannabis retailers could open.

A coalition of racial justice advocates and small growers have opposed the staggered statewide rollout. They say it disadvantages small businesses and keeps profits out of the hands of those who have been harmed most by drug criminalization — namely, Black communities and other communities of color. 

Burlington’s suggested timeline would allow dispensaries and other retailers to enter the market at the same time.

The city council resolution on the ballot item also directs tax revenue from local cannabis sales toward racial equity initiatives in the city and establishes a “local cannabis control board” to oversee those efforts.

This is all complicated, however, by delays on the state level in rolling out the recreational marijuana market, which may push back the timeline for when cannabis retailers can open.

Question No. 7: Climate Justice

The final item on the March 2 ballot is an advisory question on building decarbonization. A “yes” vote would advise the city to ensure climate justice when regulating thermal energy systems in the city — the policy described in the third ballot question. 

The advisory question would direct the city council and mayor to “create policies programs, and incentives focused on delivering the benefits of the transition to clean energy to low- and moderate-income Burlingtonians, to Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and to otherwise disadvantaged community members.”

The resolution on the advisory question says it was spurred by concerns that the costs of climate action will fall most heavily on marginalized communities. 

“Support by voters will be important in making sure that the council and administration continue to create climate change policies that foster a just transition,” it reads.

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