When Bernie Sanders—the former Mayor of Burlington—was running for president, a constant campaign refrain was to end corporate welfare for the millionaires and billionaires, and make government work for ordinary people.
He was, and is, right.
The tax money of hard-working folks should be used to pay for essential and shared services that make a community vibrant and livable—for everyone. The tax money of hard-working folks shouldn’t be used to pay for things that only serve one developer.
That said, even Bernie can be wrong form time to time and the current debate over the massive upscaling of the downtown mall is like deja vu all over again.
When Bernie was first elected mayor he got behind a massive waterfront re-development plan (called the Alden Plan) that would have privatized much more of the waterfront than we have today. What happened? Citizen concern and a demand that we do better for the public at large, not just a few wealthy developers. From that community debate evolved Waterfront park, the crown jewel of downtown Burlington and a joy to residents and tourists alike. Just look at the number of festivals and sunset pictures on Instagram for evidence.
When we faced challenges with the academic and social climate at our two center city schools we didn’t jump at the first choice which was forced busing from the “poor” part of town to more “middle income” parts of town. Instead, we went back to the drawing board and created two magnet schools that are held up by national publications like The Atlantic as the model of the modern public school.
Why did these projects happen and become shining examples for other communities to model?
Because we took a step back, took a deep breath and decided to do what was right and best, not what was quick and expedient. We didn’t allow ourselves to be pressured by successful salespeople, like Mayor Miro Weinberger or Don Sinex, or past mayors and developers.
That’s the Burlington way.
Today’s Alden Plan – or massive publicly funded development scheme – is the Sinex redevelopment of our downtown and the “public” improvements / benefits are largely centered around reconnecting Pine and St. Paul streets from Cherry and Bank streets, making wider sidewalks, burying utilities, and updating some sewer and stormwater utilities. Why “public” in quotes? Because Sinex needs these streets rebuilt in order to accommodate the hundreds of daily car trips he’s creating with new housing and commercial tenants. In other words, without these improvements—his project doesn’t work.
Before asking our approval the mayor signed a pre-development contract agreeing to issue $22 million in bonds to repay Sinex for those street improvements if they are built to the city’s approval. And, the bond would be repaid from the hoped-for new tax revenue from the Sinex development, which is being built in the Waterfront Tax Increment Financing District.
So, what is a TIF? It’s a special assessment district that allows a city or town to siphon off new tax money that would instead go to schools and the town and pay off bonds or invest directly in other public improvements: parks, skate parks, public access, bike paths, sidewalks, street improvements etc.
It would seem that we’re putting the cart before the horse, eh? I mean, getting voter approval to subsidize a developer for work he already needs to complete in order to build.
Clearly the project COULD go forward without the city spending millions of this newfound tax manna. So, why not let it? Why not spend our new tax dollars more wisely as we see proof that the developer can actually pull off what he’s duly noted he’s never done before (as in build a project of this scale). We could use that new tax money to pay off other street improvements in other parts of the city OR go toward our schools (which really need the money – more than Sinex).
So, in November, Burlington voters are going to be asked two questions about the TIF and we can send a strong message if we believe the project needs to be reined in:
- One question will ask us to extend the duration of the current Waterfront District TIF (which, oddly, this Mall project is considered to be part of) to allow for tax money to be collected from the Sinex project and used to pay for “public” improvements.
- The second question will ask us to approve $22-plus million in spending (paid back over decades) to make those “public” improvements, some of which are needed.
If you’re not fond of corporate welfare, or a lack of accountability and transparency when it comes to spending OUR money in the city—then it’s simple. Vote NO against the TIF on the November ballot, and vote against the bond.
A No vote would impede the project and hopefully get the Mayor and Sinex to come back to voters with a better plan in March.
But, regardless of how you vote, here are some questions we should be asking elected officials between now and November:
- Why not have more community input on just how the money could be used to improve downtown streets for cars, buses, pedestrians, public green spaces, and bikes rather than just these two street re-connections?
- Why not set aside incremental city tax revenues and put them toward improvements that we, as a community, decide that are not so focused on this one project?
- Why are we taking needed money from schools (since the TIF district siphons money from both city and school revenue streams) all at once? Don’t the schools (here in Burlington and statewide) need money more than a Wall Street developer?
- Why isn’t the developer paying for some of these improvements as they will largely benefit his project, along with his housing and commercial clients?
- Why are taxpayers being asked to subsidize a project that doesn’t truly conform to the human-scale city zoning standards of PlanBTV?
I’m sure there are more questions—especially with this project. Too many questions, to be honest, to be ready to have a vote on spending this much of OUR money, in my humble opinion.
While it’s true it may increase the overall grand list of the city, it’s also true that most of gains to the school and city coffers will be minimal because the loan has to be repaid first. That loan won’t be paid off for at least 20 years. So, this generation of taxpayers will see scant benefit. Good luck to the next generation, too!
Don’t get me wrong—some aspects of the public improvements have merit: Such as reconnecting streets that were destroyed by Urban Renewal. As a biker and pedestrian, I think this would be great for getting around town. But, given the sheer number of cars that this project will foist on downtown street grids make me wonder just how wonderful these improvements will be in the short or long-term. It seems as if we’re only making a few needed improvements for one developer rather than looking more expansively at how people and cars move through and around downtown. Why not more one-way streets to allow for more bike and pedestrian traffic? More green space or public areas to hang out for everyone – especially if you’re not just downtown to shop.
I say: let’s bring the Mayor and City Council back to the table and get them to be more hard-nosed in their negotiations with this developer. It’s time that the hard-working people of Burlington had someone on their side in these talks, not just someone looking for ways to spend their money to benefit a single developer.