Category Archives: vermont

Not Repeating Mistakes of the Past

Oh, what tangled interwebs we weave.

We hear a lot these days from some politicians – new and old – that when it comes to Burlington Telecom, that we should not “repeat the mistakes of the past.”

I couldn’t agree more.

For those of who have not followed the BT story closely for the last eight years, here is a quick summary of how BT got into trouble. I break it down into these key five reasons:

  • Mismanagement at BT, worsened by a lack of true public oversight;
  • An international financial crisis that stalled a necessary refinancing;
  • Unauthorized actions by Mayor Bob Kiss and CAO Jonathon Leopold to loan $17 million of taxpayer dollars;
  • A City Council that failed to recognize what was going on until long after the fact; and,
  • A City Council that played politics rather than refinance BT’s debt, thus compounding BT’s financial troubles.

There’s very few pols then, and now, who will admit or apologize for their roles in BT’s early troubles. The fact remains, however, that despite a faulty start – BT is healthy, growing, and is primed to expand beyond Burlington under a new, community cooperative ownership.

Given BT’s financial strength today – with a $3 million-plus profit expected this year – it is clear that had the Council approved the refi deal in 2009 that BT would not only have survived, along with the city’s credit rating, but would be larger and much stronger than it is today. Instead, it was left to default on its CitiCapital loan, and then turned over to a private holding company, and placed up for sale.

Now, once again thanks to councilors playing politics, Burlington could lose our telecom; the one we voted in 2000 to create, because we saw it as an important public utility.

How did we get here? Let’s rewind to late 2009.

In November 2009 – two months after I first reported that BT had been “loaned” $17 million by Leopold without truly acknowledging it publicly – the City Council was presented with a refinancing offer that would have bundled up BT’s debt, repaid taxpayers, paid off CitiCapital, and then worked with a new financier to bring itself back to break-even and then profitability.

In a contentious, two-and-a-half hour meeting the City Council, led by council Democrats and GOP allies, shut down debate and killed the proposed refinancing deal.

It was a clear political move, and here’s how it went down (as I wrote at the time):

Led by Councilors Joan Shannon and Ed Adrian, the council Democrats, using parliamentary procedures, split the resolution into two parts and then, blocking debate, approved a repayment clause while then rejecting the refinancing proposal. Which meant, that BT would have to repay its bills out of it’s own cash and not borrow more – from anyone.

In addition:

Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) said the council action could force BT into insolvency. That it can’t borrow money from the cash pool until a refinancing deal is approved leaves BT pretty much hamstrung.

“I hear people saying they are here to protect taxpayers, but you could easily end up leaving people with a huge debt and no Burlington Telecom,” said Bushor. 

Leopold, too, said he was “appalled” by the action, calling it a partisan ploy designed to embarrass the administration. “Do you really want to destroy a $50 million investment and the credit rating of the city?” asked Leopold. “Because that’s what this could do.”

From the beginning of the BT scandal it was clear to anyone paying attention that there was a faction on the city council who wanted to use BT as a political bludgeon against Progressives, and to kill BT slowly in the process.

One councilor who was part of that subterfuge – Republican Kurt Wright – went so far to suggest in 2011 when he was running for Mayor that the city should sell Burlington Electric Department in order to repay BT’s debts, and shore up the city’s pension fund.

Despite the political gamesmanship at the time, in early 2010, the Blue Ribbon Committee on Burlington Telecom—formed after the refi deal was nixed as a way to determine whether BT had a viable future—concluded very simply:

“The Committee does not recommend the outright sale of Burlington Telecom to a third party. Both consultants, HBC and Stratum, advised that the sale of Burlington Telecom was not in the best interest of the community or the taxpayers.”

The consultants also made it clear that, while troubled at the time, BT was too valuable an asset to sell at a “fire sale” price—or at all. And, that even at break-even, BT could meet its debt obligations as well as it investment strategy to expand.

The conditions under which BT was created, and its reasons for existing, have not changed. We, the people of Burlington, should be able to control a key utility that will drive our civic life and economy in the 21st Century.

To be honest, BT has never been served well by politicians.

We should not allow the same political gamesmanship that nearly sunk BT in 2009 be what drives a decision on selling BT in 2017.

Especially since our options are so limited and risky.

If you want to know what happens when you sell to an outside venture capital-funded company, lust look at what happened to Magic Hat.

As BT finances were melting down due to the financial crisis of 2008, an eerily similar predicament was playing out across town at Magic Hat. It expanded by buying another brewery and as a result became heavily leveraged by vulture capitalists who then called in their notes. It led to locally owned and controlled Magic Hat being sold to first one huge beer conglomerate until, two years later, it was gobbled up by an even bigger beer conglomerate. While it’s still here in VT, it’s about as far from locally owned as it can get.

That is BT’s future if we sell it to Schurz or Ting/Tucows.

If you don’t think so, I have a bridge for sale.

Let’s Keep BT Local.


Unite the Right

Author’s note: Several hours after posting this, the site was taken down by Wix after a Twitter follower of mine complained to this website design firm. Thanks to all who read it, shared it, and spread the word. I’m still a little shocked that the GOP in Vermont would let this site stand for so long without comment. But, then again, look who’s in charge. So, thanks for reading, thanks for helping take this site offline. But, stay tuned as I’m sure this site, or something like it, will pop up again.


Woke up this morning to find myself tagged in a blog post on a website with the sole purpose of maligning the name and well-being of a friend of mine, James Ehlers (who also happens to be running for Governor).

parody_postNow, James is no stranger to controversy or courting political enemies. Maybe that’s why we get along.  However, when we put something out on social media, or the Internets, or in print, and we call other people out by name, we at least have the decency to sign our names to it.

Apparently, that’s not everyone’s idea of decency. You see, the people behind this site haven’t identified themselves, other than claiming to be Stan Hardy to Seven Days‘ “Fair Game” columnist John Walters. I suppose Oliver Laurel didn’t have the same ring to it, but I digress.

sevendays_ehlersIt’s a pretty disturbing site, to be honest, even by parody standards. They’ve taken down some of the more toxic elements, such as putting the site’s main address at the psychiatric facility in Berlin. Pretty revolting, but what do you expect with a Fuhrer like Trump at the top of the GOP.

I did a quick online search to find the site’s owners, but the site was registered through a proxy service, who then also registered the domain for them, too. No easy way to trace them.

My guess is that the person(s) behind it have done this before and perhaps learned a lesson or two about putting your name to a fake website. I don’t think we have to look under too many rocks to find them. Since Slappy Whyte, er Scot Shumski, moved to North Carolina, we can possibly rule him out. (As an aside, the Ward 4 school commissioner still votes in Burlington and uses his parent’s home in Ward 7 – sure hope he’s not one of them there voter fraudsters! Don’t let James O’Keefe know!)

Anyway, back to our little website intrigue.

Some of you may recall that Executive Director of the Vermont GOP—Jeff Bartley—was a lackey for Republican Rich Tarrant’s senatorial suicide run against Sen. Bernie Sanders back in the day. And you may also recall that he made a fake news website during that campaign! He was outed by a real journalist who found the domain name registry. Like I said, some people learn their lessons.

Here’s where it gets fun.

Several years later, Bartley also worked for Republican Lenny Britton’s quixotic bid against Sen.Patrick Leahy. He and the “brain trust” of Hollywood wannabes Britton and Bradford Broyles came up with a couple of “funny” skits in their attempt take down ‘ol Sen. Leahy with a little creativity. But, mostly they spent other people’s money. And then sued each other. Britton and Broyles still cuddle up with each other, professionally, at a firm aptly called Public Spectacle Media.

I guess bygones are bygones between this trio now that Ehlers’ campaign is underway, and they’re plying away and bringing the political swampland to Vermont. They even have a nascent Twitter account, @VTDreamteam. Awww, how cute.

Ehlers must have really said something to annoy Bartley, Broyles, and other Vermont Trump lovers (like former Rep. Job Tate) on Facebook to get them to come together like this. Must be Ehlers is onto something.

Given the standards set by their Fuhrer in Washington, it’s clear that attacking a Veteran who has dedicated his life to fighting for the environment and the public health is par for the course in the GOP these days.

Seems to me the worst of Washington is now being embraced by Vermont Republicans.

I won’t be holding my breath for our aw shucks ’em golly good ‘ol boy Gov. Phil Scott to step in and say anything either to call off the demeaning attacks. I mean, that would require real leadership.

Get Miffed about the TIF

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.

A Down Town

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the multitude of projects planned, or underway, in Burlington, and thought I should add my voice to those who have expressed concerns with this downtown re-development.

In short, I think we need more information from the developer, city leaders, and this community would benefit from slowing the process down to ensure that the entire Burlington community can benefit from this project.

This isn’t just another housing development like on the old Burlington College property, or Hotel Vermont, or the housing built on No. Winooski Ave. in recent years. This about, in many ways, undoing what went wrong post-Urban Renewal for downtown Burlington.

We’ve gotten a lot right in the past 30 years, which is why this community is ranked among the most livable communities in the US, and why we have such a creative, vibrant city.

I’ve read through the scant information online and the nice promo flyers, but there is some nitty gritty details missing, which is fueling a lot of necessary skepticism that taxpayers aren’t going to see the benefits everyone claims.

And, let’s be honest: Despite the Trump-esque messaging from some in the business community that this project will somehow make Burlington “great again,” it couldn’t be further from the truth. Look at what Melinda Moulton and Main Street Landing have accomplished on the waterfront, largely thanks to the public assets that WE as a community ensured would exist.

There is a lot of building activity in Burlington (throughout the city) and plenty of big projects in the pipeline. Why else would Sinex be proposing this project if there isn’t already a vibrant community in place?

I’m not opposed to downtown development, or building up. I supported the new height allowances adopted several years ago; a reasonable compromise given what some wanted from both sides. That’s when things work best in Burlington – a robust public debate and discussion.

In the past 30 years, Burlington has gone from a big little city to one of the most decorated cities in the country for livability, raising families, starting businesses, and retiring. Not a bad mix.

No one project made that happen. And the projects that did help make that happen had a strong public participation component, as well as inclusion and a visible public benefit. Church Street Marketplace, City Market, the Waterfront (both park cleanups, and new development that came later through Main Street Landing and the housing).

I’d ask the council to take a step back, and really consider the long-term impacts of the project. At a minimum, we should be doing more due diligence, that includes:

  • More details about the financing of the project. If we’re being asked to set aside public money to build it, we need more transparency and details BEFORE we say yes.
  • A little more skin in the game from the developer in terms of the public infrastructure and public good that comes with this project.
  • Make the TIF improvements benefit everyone – like we’ve done on the waterfront – and not just a self-selected crowd of downtown boosters who seek to create a boutique image.
  • The environment! Climate change is real, it’s happening and we should be doing more to reduce cars downtown, increase bikes, pedestrians and public transportation, integrate food forests, rooftop gardens and farms, and require moving to a net zero construction model to keep our city’s carbon footprint at a minimum.
  • Truly put this project in context with all of the other projects being planned, or built, to boost housing and business space. There’s more happening than we’re willing to perhaps acknowledge.
  • Slow things down a little – there’s no real rush here. And, if that’s the developer talking because of a financing window, then maybe we need to question the viability of said financing plan and the demands of investors.

So, let’s ask the hard questions now. And, maybe we take a step back and build in the public equity component from the start?

Height & Design
[As an aside: I agree with Bruce Seifer that the developers should raise balloons to provide a visual demonstration of the building’s dimensions (corners and peak). A little 3D model on a table or a PowerPoint “fly by” do not it justice.]

Why not build within the community standards we have set? Couldn’t we be more creative rather than just simply allowing someone to go up 160’ in the air? Think that’s the first we’ll hear of this kind of variance? Not likely.

Secondly, this development seems dull and vision-less, derived from a decades-old hack design that lacks the vibrancy and creativity that has come to define Burlington. Hide a parking garage, plant a few trees and extend the look and feel of the Marketplace? Oy. For a city as creative and vibrant as Burlington, the design seems pretty bland and suburban – like a denser version of MapleTree Place. Seriously?

Public Good
Put aside the notion that taxpayers should lose out on new taxes in order to fund the public improvements the site needs to be redeveloped. Why shouldn’t the developer pay for it?

The Waterfront TIF that allowed for Hotel Vermont has done wonders for improving the public portion of the waterfront. I don’t see that same being applied here.

Where are the enhanced bike lanes throughout downtown? Or, one-way streets with wider bike lanes and sidewalks? Or, a public bike locker for downtown workers to store their bikes and gear safely a la Boulder? Integrated rooftop farms/gardens? Permanent downtown farmer’s market? Net zero construction? District-heating rather than using more natural gas and power and increasing the city’s carbon footprint?

These things matter, especially in the age of resource constraints, oil depletion, climate change, and when the city itself is sourcing its power from renewables. We need regenerative approaches to development, and realize the slow growth will be the norm in the coming decades. Overbuilding now will only come back to haunt our children’s generation, as we’re seeing it hit our own generations today.

Public Financing should Equal Public Good
If it’s all about financing, then the developer should be upfront and transparent about the financing deal they are pulling together if they want public welfare, er, resources to benefit their project. And, we should see that BEFORE the council approves anything, and before voters approve the TIF expansion.

If you want to create affordable housing – enact rent control, get the colleges to build more on campus housing. Hold developers feet to the fire to work with Champlain Housing Trust, COTS, and other nonprofits to build truly affordable, permanent housing. Building these apartments won’t magically open doors for low-income renters or the homeless. Or help addicts. It’ll make a few people richer, a few businesses healthier, and we’ll just wait for the trickle down – if it happens – while the TIF payments keep paying off the corporate subsidy to Sinex.

We’ve let developers off the hook repeatedly to commit to inclusionary zoning – and now some developers are point to that as a sign it’s not working! Come on, people. Stand up for the values that we’ve imbued into the charter over a period of decades and realize that like developers before him, Sinex will understand that our vision is what is working best – not a bunch of out-of-state financiers.

Personally, I think the developers should be the ones to finance any public improvements that they need to have done; that shouldn’t be on us to make it happen. If they can’t get the financing for all of that, then they should sharpen their pencils.

Burlington will still be here – thriving, creating jobs, opportunity, and attracting people. The market will be here for them, but let’s get it right out of the gate rather than trying to fix things a decade from now and regret seizing an opportunity to make our downtown open to ALL Burlington residents, not just a select few who fit the boutique-ness that is emerging from Church Street and its environs.

I also worry greatly about the future, not just because I have kids, but because the news isn’t all that good when it comes to the climate. There are serious resource constraints, and without forward-thinking development today – not just planting a few trees and adding a bike lane – but truly rethinking how “growth” looks, feels, and benefits a community needs to happen. DeGrowth may be the norm within 20 years, which means doing more with what we have, and giving back to the planet (and people) we’ve taken from for centuries.

Burlington could start living up to that model of growth and development rather than continuing with a failing model.