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Burlington looks toward Nov. for $63.5M bond referendum with potential 13.4% property tax hike

Burlington’s elected leaders have taken their first tentative steps toward a bond referendum in this year’s general election that could raise $63.5 million for a variety of high-dollar capital projects.

The members of Burlington’s city council reached a consensus to proceed with this referendum on Monday despite some preliminary estimates from the city’s administrators that the debt payments on the proposed bond package would equate to 6½ cents on the city’s property tax rate of 48.36 cents for every $100 of property value.

The council gave the all-clear to these preparations after the city’s administrators presented them with a six-item inventory of projects that they deemed suitable for inclusion within the proposed bond package.

Burlington’s city manager Craig Honeycutt ultimately unveiled these staff-level suggestions at a city council work session that evening, which built on some of the council’s earlier discussions about its foremost facility-related priorities.

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Among Honeycutt’s candidates for the bond package were an $11 million expansion of the Paramount Theater and a $6 million edifice for the Maynard Aquatic Center, which the city has temporarily converted to an outdoor pool due to the structural degradation of its previous housing.

In addition to these two recreational projects, which the council has previously greenlit to one extent or another, Honeycutt called for another $25 million for a new indoor rec center on the city’s west side. He also presented the council with three road-related proposals – namely, a $15 million surge to help the city catch up on its routine street repairs and resurfacing, $1.5 million for sidewalk maintenance, and $5 million for streetscaping and underground utility upgrades in Burlington’s downtown development district.

Honeycutt acknowledged that the completion of these six endeavors will require a level of funding that few things, aside from a bond package, can realistically offer.

“If you look at all of these projects combined, you’re looking at $63.5 million in general obligation bonds,” he went on to concede during the work session. “This is a worst-case scenario,” he added, “and if we did everything and it’s all at the worst case [level], we would be looking at [debt payments tantamount to] about 6½ cents on the [property] tax rate.”

Honeycutt admitted that, given Burlington’s current property tax rate of 48.36 cents, a debt obligation equal to 6½ cents would theoretically amount to a tax hike of 13.4 percent for the city’s property owners. Yet, this potential exaction on the city’s taxpayers didn’t discourage the five-member council from giving Honeycutt the all-clear to pursue the proposed bond referendum during the work session.

Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler was especially eager to press ahead with this citywide vote so that the city doesn’t find itself in a position where it lacks the revenue to tackle high-priority projects like the Paramount Theater’s expansion and the aquatic center’s new housing. Butler also pointed to anticipated reductions in the city’s debt service and lease obligations that he said will insulate the city’s property taxpayers from the full brunt of the proposed bond package’s financial impact.

“My point is that you just covered about $12, $13, $14 million in debt payments right there,” he added in reference to the existing debts that the city is about to wind down. “So, we’re hopefully going to bite down on this list with other sources of money.”

As a counterpoint to the mayor’s auspicious tidings, Burlington’s mayor pro tem Harold Owen warned of the potential impact that inflation may have on the city manager’s “worst case” cost figures as well as the effect of mission creep on projects like the westside rec center, which could become a magnet for all sorts of pricey suggestions.

Meanwhile, council member Dejuana Bigelow told her colleagues that she was disappointed to see the city manager’s project list leave out some $4.5 million in new sidewalks and greenways that the city has elsewhere identified among its leading priorities. Bigelow noted that the city’s residents have been consistent in their support for these infrastructure improvements even if they failed to make Honeycutt’s list for the bond package.

“I’d like to get it on the record that I am for it,” she went on to stress. “It’s just not going to make it in this bond.”

In response to Bigelow’s exhortations, Jim Butler observed that the city has been relatively successful in obtaining grants for new sidewalks and greenways, adding that the city should continue tapping these sources for these improvements. Butler nevertheless declared his curiosity “piqued” by Bigelow’s contention that there’s a public safety dimension to building new sidewalks in areas with high volumes of foot traffic.

Yet, in the final analysis, neither Butler, nor Bigelow, nor anyone else on the council was willing to sideline the proposed bond referendum in order to thrash out the value of additional pedestrian accommodations.

According to Burlington’s administrators, the city has a relatively slim window of opportunity to get the proposed plebiscite onto the ballot for this fall’s general election. The city’s top brass nevertheless deemed this goal to be wholly attainable as long as the city’s municipal staff begins the necessary preparations as early as possible.

Honeycutt said that, if all goes according to plan, the council could hold a state-mandated public hearing on the proposed referendum in the month of July. Its members could then issue a bond order to pave the way for a formal decision by the city’s voters during November’s election. Honeycutt added, however, that this carefully-wrought timeline hinges on some swift and decisive action from the city’s elected officials.

“If we delay too long,” he said before the council gave him a nod to press forward, “we’re going to run out of time.”

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