City Council Appoints Parking Committee, Awards $80,000 for Housing at February 13 Meeting

by Nat Frothingham

City Council board president Tom Golonka called the February 13 meeting of the Montpelier City Council to order at about 6:30 p.m. The council is temporarily holding its meeting in the Montpelier High School library. (The city hall council chamber is not currently accessible until an elevator at city hall can be repaired.)

Kevin Casey Seeks Trust Fund Award and Waiver

Kevin Casey, community development specialist at the City of Montpelier’s Department of Planning and Development, asked the council to approve an $80,000 award from the Montpelier Housing Trust Fund to the Central Vermont Community Land Trust (CVCLT).

He also asked the council to approve a waiver to raise the income and occupancy eligibility ceiling for prospective Montpelier home buyers to 120 percent of the Washington County median income level. Based on recent census data, the Washington County household median income level is currently $55,313. The council gave unanimous approval to both these measures.

In a subsequent phone call with The Bridge, Casey explained the broad intent of the $80,000 award to CVCLT. The land trust hopes to make it possible for young families to purchase eight Montpelier homes over a two-year period. The award will be used to help potential homeowners come up with needed down payments.

Casey said that an average Montpelier house today costs $223,000. About 10 years ago as reported in the 2000 census, the average Montpelier house cost $108,000. Raising the eligibility income levels to 120 percent of median county income would make it possible for more young families to put together a down payment and afford to buy a Montpelier house.

Report from the Montpelier City Charter Revision Committee 

Councilor Alan Weiss thanked Nancy Sherman and the other members of the City Charter Revision Committee for their hard work and effectiveness. (Aside from Sherman, members of the committee include Michael Doyle, Jonathan Williams, Earl Fechter, Page Guertin and Elizabeth Dodge with help from VISTA volunteers Drew DeVitis and Luke Rafferty, with Alan Weiss as the City Council liaison.)

The council’s charge to the charter revision committee was to deal with anachronisms in the charter and redundancies and items to be deleted, amended or added. The committee is consulting with (among others) city attorney Paul Giuliani, Montpelier attorney and municipal law expert Paul Gillies, and Steve Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. In general, the committee hopes to make the city charter more understandable and reader friendly. Meeting information for the committee is listed on the city’s website. The committee will report its findings to City Council in August 2013. In due course, the recommended charter changes will be printed and available to the public for review in advance of a public hearing and eventual city vote.

Report from the Montpelier Community Fund Board

Next, the council heard a report from Bernie Lambek, a member of the Montpelier Community Fund Board. (In addition to Lambek, the board includes Beth Boutin, Eliza Dodd, Julie Hendrikson and Warren Vail.) In previous years, the city of Montpelier made awards to support arts projects and arts organization from the Montpelier Arts Fund. That fund no longer exists. Instead, support for arts projects and organizations now comes from the Montpelier Community Fund Board. This year, City Council set aside $118,000 for awards to community nonprofits, community service organizations and arts organizations. Forty applications for assistance were received totaling just over $133,000. After consideration, the board recommended to the council awards totaling $108,150.

General Discussion of Montpelier Parking Issues and Proposals

Mayor John Hollar reminded the council of the city’s current parking goal: “to provide sufficient parking throughout the city for shoppers, visitors, businesses and housing.”

Hollar said parking was an issue he hears about “all the time” and is “an issue that the state struggles with as well.” He said that if the city of Montpelier develops the Carr Lot as a transit center with additional amenities, the 130 parking spaces now available at that location would be lost to the city, according to a 2005 Carr Lot Transit study.

Two spokespersons from the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA)—Kristin Warner, director of organizing, and VSEA treasurer and board member Sheila Coniff—addressed the council on the parking issue. Warner said that 1,595 state employees report to work every day at the Capitol Complex in Montpelier, while 1,305 parking spaces are available, making a 290 parking-space deficit. In addition to the Capitol Complex, 400-plus state workers at the National Life complex also have parking difficulties. The VSEA is working with the state administration on car pooling, van pooling, subsidized bus passes and the like. On January 31 a state employee petition was delivered to the Shumlin administration calling for action on parking.

Councilor Anne Watson asked if changes could be made to the city’s winter parking ban so that residents would not have to move their cars on nights without snowfall. Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos discussed his department’s efforts to streamline payments and collections for delinquent motorists. He said that parking in the vicinity of Union Elementary School continues to be a big problem and that he would welcome a small council-appointed parking committee to deal with parking issues and problems. Councilor Weiss asked why the Union School couldn’t stagger the entry and release times of its students.

Councilor Thierry Guerlain discussed the idea of a big parking garage of two or three levels topped with residential units in a space behind the Vermont Thrush Restaurant, Vermont Mutual and the federal building, going all the way to Elm Street.

Hollar said that building a 240-space parking garage behind the Vermont Thrush on state-owned land would cost $6 million. An individual parking space at such a garage would cost $200 per month. “That’s the challenge,” he said. “The state doesn’t have the money right now.”

Richard Sheir, whose wife runs The Quirky Pet and has customers who drive to her store from a distance, said that if current efforts to promote downtown as a tourist destination succeed, parking issues could intensify. City Manager Bill Fraser recalled a visit that he and others took to Hanover (NH) a number of years ago. Hanover had instituted a standing parking committee. It was small but it included the key stakeholders such as Dartmouth.

Following a detailed discussion about its makeup and representation, the council voted unanimously to appoint a seven-member, standing parking committee that would include such stakeholders as the VSEA, the state’s Buildings and General Services Department, Montpelier schools, the Montpelier Business Association and residents. There would be a council member as liaison and two at-large members. Fraser agreed to draft a charge for the newly establish parking committee. The VSEA has a March 12 parking conference open to all stakeholders. (Please go to page 26 for details.)

Additional City Council Comments

Guerlain asked for an update on the district heating project in an upcoming City Council meeting. He also asked the council whether or not the city ought to continue to own land around Berlin Pond if the city was unable to maintain control of that land. Watson said that a coalition of energy groups, including Green Mountain Power, IBM and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, is working with Montpelier’s Energy Advisory Committee to help the city reach its energy goals.

Weiss expressed disappointment about a recent letter of the city manager’s that appeared in the Times Argus concerning negotiations over selling “excess Montpelier water” to the town of Berlin. Weiss felt that the city manager was making statements on behalf of the council and that these statements should have first been cleared with the council. Hollar said he supported the city manager’s letter and stated that Montpelier’s offer to the town of Berlin “was a genuine offer.” He described the city’s attitude toward Berlin as “yes, we want to work with you.” He said the water-rate offer to Berlin was not an unreasonable price and that the city was open to a counteroffer from Berlin.