When you hear about wastewater discharges into Lake Champlain and leaky roofs at public schools, it’s easy to want to see them fixed. But how much would you pay to fix these problems in your community?
Residents in Burlington are considering that question in this election.
During a recent tour of Burlington High School, water slowly dripped from the ceiling into a yellow mop bucket in a hallway.
Marty Spaulding, director of property services for the Burlington School District, pointed at the leak.
“Here’s an example of [an] issue where we have a constant roof leak whenever it rains,” he said. “Which, obviously, the roof needs to be addressed, but there’s ... a much more significant issue with the rusted structure — roof structure — because of the ongoing leaking that we’ve had in this space.”
According to Spaulding, the school needs more than just a patched roof. There have been few upgrades to the building in the last 55 years.
And that’s why city residents are considering a $70 million bond to renovate the high school. The redevelopment plans include things like addressing deferred maintenance and enhancing building safety.
Spaulding said the plan calls for demolishing at least two buildings and renovating another to better comply with federal disability and accessibility laws.
“So all of the classrooms will be built four stories on top of each other, so you can navigate vertically with an elevator and throughout each floor you can easily access all points of that floor,” he said.
If residents approve the bond to renovate the high school, they would see their property taxes go up starting in 2021. The Burlington School District estimates that at its peak, a home valued at $250,000 would see a $302 increase in property taxes.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said increases in property taxes are tough, but there’s a new city policy to limit property tax growth.
“The debt policy is really set up to govern and provide sort of guidelines, guardrails if you will, in terms of how much debt we take on that we'd pay for by property taxes,” Weinberger said.
The school bond isn’t the only infrastructure upgrade on the ballot this November. There’s also a $30 million bond to upgrade the city’s storm and wastewater system.
This one would not be paid for with property taxes — the increase would be in water bills. The city estimates the average family’s bill would go up by about $5 a month.
The upgrades come after a number of unplanned discharges of partially disinfected wastewater into Lake Champlain this summer.
Megan Moir, director of water resources for the city of Burlington, said a top priority is to modernize the city’s disinfection system — “which is one of the components that failed this summer, and that includes not just the pumps and the valves and certain things that failed, but also the computerized control system which is one of the systems that failed,” she said.
Tom McCarthy lives Burlington’s New North End and said he’s definitely going to vote for the wastewater and stormwater bond.
“The school one is tougher because it’s so expensive,” he said. "It’s going to be on the taxpayers' burden for years and years to come. And as a retiree, that‘s a problem. You know, these property taxes in Burlington ... seriously are affecting our income.”
But McCarthy said the school needs the work and he’s probably going to vote in support of the project.