MONTPELIER — So what happens now?
After winning their respective races for mayor and city councilor in Montpelier, John Hollar and Thierry Guerlain are coming to City Hall to make changes, particularly when it comes to the budget and spending.
That could have a direct effect on the city.
Both men bring a different set of values and perspectives to the City Council than their predecessors.
Hollar has said during the one-man race for mayor that he’s socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Guerlain fits that mold, too.
One of his first priorities as mayor, Hollar said, will be to evaluate whether the district energy project remains viable.
Recent project cost estimates came in significantly over budget. The price tag for the thermal energy distribution system went from $4 million to around $5 million, according to the city’s design engineer.
Now the new City Council has an opportunity, and perhaps the votes, to derail the $20 million biomass project.
Mayor Mary Hooper and City Councilor Nancy Sherman were both reliable “yes” votes when district energy matters came before the council.
And when City Councilor Andy Hooper joined colleagues Tom Golonka and Alan Weiss in voting against the project, Mary Hooper would provide the tiebreaker.
But now Mary Hooper and Sherman are gone, and their replacements, Hollar and Guerlain, aren’t happily jumping on the biomass bandwagon.
Both men say they support the idea of biomass and renewable energy, and they’re open to making the project work.
However, neither of them is convinced it makes sense financially.
Guerlain said he’s wary about the city assuming too much financial risk with the district energy project.
Hollar said he’s open to ideas to get the project back on track, but it’s clear that neither Hollar nor Guerlain is a full-throated supporter.
However, one area where everyone seems to agree is that roads and sidewalks in Montpelier need work.
What Hollar and Guerlain both said they want is for the city to figure out how to pave more streets and repair more sidewalks without raising property taxes.
One theory is that the additional money for roads and sidewalks could come from reprioritizing spending and wringing out inefficiencies in City Hall departments.
Both Guerlain and Hollar point to a report commissioned by the City Council last year called the Matrix report. A consultant, Matrix Consulting Group, was paid $34,500 to evaluate all city departments and identify inefficiencies.
In the 237-page report, areas of improvement were found in each department, Hollar said. As mayor, he wants every department evaluated to see how many of those recommendations have been implemented.
Guerlain said the call for improved efficiency should apply to all departments.
During the budget discussions last year, he said City Manager William Fraser took the police and fire departments off the table for budget reduction consideration.
Fraser said at the time that public safety departments are core services the city must provide.
Just like police and fire, having decent roads and sidewalks is a core service too, Guerlain cautioned.
But despite being one of the founders of a group of citizens calling for a 3 percent cut to the city budget, Guerlain has softened his stance on budget cuts.
“I didn’t think that we would ever reduce the budget,” he said Wednesday of the group’s work last year.
A key goal of the group, called Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier, as articulated by its members throughout last year’s budget season, was to “bend the cost curve” down on the city budget.
The idea wasn’t to recommend drastic cuts immediately but, over time, to reduce spending and therefore property taxes. The key complaint of the group was that property taxes are too high.
Now Guerlain says he’s not calling for budget cuts per se. He said he would rather see a reorganization of the city’s budget priorities.
Money the city needs to fix the roads, he said, should come from within the existing municipal budget with no additional tax revenue.
Time will tell.
The next City Council meeting will be March 14.
SOURCE: Times Argus. March 8, 2012. http://www.timesargus.com/article/20120308/NEWS01/703089937/1003/NEWS01