The Burlington City Council approved utility rate increases in both the city’s water and electric departments on Monday evening.
The Burlington Electric Department announced last week that it planned to increase its rates by 7.5% to make up for pandemic-related shortfalls, which amounted to $2.1 million. The Water Resources Division also created new fixed rates for certain water services in the city.
The body approved the water rate increases unanimously. It also approved the electric rate increases in a 10-1 vote, with Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, voting against, although he did not explain why.
Two business leaders requested that councilors delay increasing costs in the city’s two utility structures as many residents and businesses are struggling to recover financially from the pandemic. One of those callers was Gary Scott, vice president of Hospital Services for the University of Vermont Medical Center.
He requested that councilors approve a lower rate increase. The UVM Medical Center, like other businesses in the area, saw great financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic. Scott said if the rate was approved, it would increase the UVMMC’s budget by $400,000, which the center could not plan for.
“We, too, are reeling from this last year and the uncertainty that lies ahead for us financially,” Scott said. “We only just experienced a positive quarter, which in part was due to a onetime receipt of relief funds.”
Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, said the electric and water rate increase could not be coming at a worse time for businesses in the city as they begin to recover from the pandemic.
“I really do urge the city, if possible, to see if there’s some way they can mitigate the electric rate increase,” Devine said. “Maybe postpone it. Give people a little bit of time to get on their feet again.”
Darren Springer, general manager of Burlington Electric, acknowledged that the rate increase will be difficult for some residents to meet. He said the department is providing an energy assistance program for low-income customers, which would provide a monthly bill credit to those enrolled in the state’s fuel assistance program.
“We understand the challenge of the moment for the community, and we definitely view a rate increase as a last resort,” Springer said.
The water rate increase will differ for those across the city depending on how much water they use. The extra revenue generated from the changes will fund improvements to the aging water infrastructure in the city, according to a memo from Megan Moir, director of the Water Resources Division.
Moir told councilors there will be three new fixed costs: a new flat fee dependent on the size of a property’s water meter, a fee for those who use meters for irrigation systems and a fee for those who have a private fire hydrant.
There are also new cost-saving measures, Moir said. To encourage efficiency, those who use below the median water usage for a specific home type, whether it’s a single-family home, duplex or triplex, will see a discount in their bill. The water division will also be waiving the fixed monthly water charge for those who are at or below 185% of the federal poverty line.
Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South District, expressed concern that those with large families, who might not be able to achieve the median water usage discount, will see their bills go up.
“I am not confident with what I’ve heard so far that these rate changes aren’t going to harm large families living in single-family, duplexes or triplexes,” Shannon said. “Water is very expensive in Burlington.”
CEDO’s new director
Councilor Brian Pine, P-Ward 3, also secured unanimous support from the City Council on Monday night to take on the city’s head position of the Community Economic Development Office. Mayor Miro Weinberger announced last week that he appointed Pine as director of the influential organization that oversees development projects in the city.
Pine’s appointment to the job will leave his council seat empty until a special election is held, which is planned for late August.
He was lauded for his commitment to the development of affordable housing in the city by members of the council. Pine previously spent 18 years at CEDO working on housing policy.
“The city will get to benefit not just from Brian’s kind of high level, vision and understanding of what housing in Burlington could be,” Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, said, “but also (he’s) someone who’s not afraid to dig deep and go into the details and figure out the exactly right solution.”
The council also unanimously passed a resolution that would expand the types of city boards on which young people are allowed to serve. The resolution intends to increase the perspectives represented on these boards and allow mentorship and professional opportunities for young people.
The resolution would allow young people to serve on the Community Development Block Grant Advisory Board, the Advisory Committee on Accessibility, the Church Street Marketplace Commission, the Board of Health, the Electric Light Commission and the Public Works Commission.
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