By Don Keelan
Thirty-three years ago, when my family and I settled in Vermont, we thought about residing in Burlington. In many ways, Burlington was a mini-Boston, only more beautiful with majestic views of the Adirondack and Green Mountains, endless vistas across Lake Champlain, and home to a half dozen colleges.
Burlington enjoyed the success from nearby Essex Junction, the IBM facility, an international airport, and many other amenities. No wonder Burlington was acclaimed as one of the best small cities in which to live and retire.
In between then and now, Burlington found the time and money to develop a pedestrian-friendly shopping area, miles of biking and walking paths, a first-class waterfront visitor/marina, and just up the hill, a world-class medical research university and hospital.
Burlington was not the Vermont pictured in Vermont Life or other publications noting the state’s rural beauty. Burlington was an island on to itself. And today, that island is surrounded by stormy waters that threaten the physical, emotional, and financial well-being of its inhabitants and businesses.
The COVID-19 damage to the city’s businesses will be immeasurable for months, if not years. Tourism is all but banned, and legions of college students, who once frequented downtown, have disappeared. Still, the virus continues to take its toll.
The downtown also has to contend with a giant crater, resembling what one might have witnessed in a war-zone, and it appears to be years before any fruitful filling of the giant hole.
Once the envy of many towns and cities, the city’s police department is now in shambles. The race to the bottom in morale, police coverage, and expectations has been devastating: three police chiefs in one year, personnel departures, and lawsuits have only exacerbated the downward spiral.
Early progress in stemming the homelessness and opioid crises has been reversed, with the trend going from bad to worse. The city and nonprofit organizations are acquiring motels and converting shelters.
The loss of Burlington College to the Queen City and the headquarters and estate home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont only added to the city’s decline as the center of excellence in education and spiritual guidance. Of course, it became more profound this fall when the city’s high school could not open due to the discovery of PCBs.
In addition to Covid-19, the Medical Center is contending with its 5,000 computers being sabotaged from a hacking/ransomware event, costing, at last count, upwards to $82 million.
The City Council members believe that these are not difficult issues and do not need further attention. Instead, it is critical for them that they stay focused on their progressive city charter changes.
One such change is so the city can have authority over the use of oil and gas heat in homes and businesses. Also, any new construction be void of any use of fossil fuels unless the developers are willing to pay an undefined impact fee. What better time to impose such bans than now when there is so much distraction?
The council’s overly-progressive agenda does not stop with fossil fuels. Moreover, the city must have additional oversight of residential rental properties. It is hard to imagine how any landlord would be interested in investing in Burlington.
Back to policing. This agency might no longer be under the control of the city’s police commission, the mayor, or the council but in the hands of an Independent Community Control Board, according to acting chief Jon Murad. The force strength could go down to 59 officers by September when it was once was close to 100. The National Guard should stand ready.
How thoughtless of politicians to propose such far-out changes while their constituents are faced with enormous and unprecedented challenges. It is because no one is watching. Let’s hope that the council’s indifference is contained to their island and does not spread throughout Vermont.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.