Montpelier City Council discusses affordability

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Montpelier is thinking about two specific things to make itself more affordable, and they both have to do with wages for certain kinds of workers.

However, both objectives have similar questions surrounding them that need to be answered before the City Council can act on them.

A Montpelier council member said Wednesday night that a lot of new buildings are going up in the city right now.

“We have the transit center,” Conor Casey said. “We have a possible parking garage. We have a wastewater treatment plant. This is sort of inviting a new set of workers into our town, a set of workers that I think has been largely invisible nationwide.”

These are employees of construction contractors.

A union electrician from Colchester told the council at one point in the evening, “We built your city, but we can’t afford to live in it.”

Casey has proposed a responsible contractor ordinance, similar to a measure already in place in Portland, Maine, to boost their pay.

“Even though they might not be Montpelier residents, they deserve to be treated to the same standard that we treat our own workers,” he said.

However, how should a prevailing wage be set, and how would monitoring and enforcement work? The council has set an initial public hearing for its October 9th meeting to start to address those questions.

For a while now, Montpelier has also been considering a living wage ordinance to cover not just construction, but any business that does contract work for the city.

MIchael Sherman, a member of Montpelier’s Social & Economic Justice Advisory Committee, admits that he’s no expert in this field. However, he’s researched living wage measures elsewhere — including in Burlington, which has had one since 2001.

According to two Burlington city staff members he spoke with, a guarantee of a living wage for contract work hasn’t substantially hurt the Queen City.

“No significant increase in cost and no significant decrease in the number of bidders,” Sherman said. “One thing that they emphasized was doing the groundwork, educating bidders on what is expected.”

But again, there are some lingering questions.

Sherman asked, “What’s included? How far down does it go? How broad does it go? What are the exemptions from that? Things like that, that are very important. You don’t want people to get caught up, smaller organizations that can’t manage it.”

All of this means the City Council won’t act on the idea of a living wage ordinance just yet.

However, it’s just approved an application for a $20,000 state grant to help the city develop a 2030 net-zero energy plan.

Disability Rights Vermont also presented the City Council with a letter Wednesday night. It reads that the group has just created the Mark Johnson Memorial Fund. The goal of the fund is to support efforts to improve relationships between law enforcement and people in an emotional or mental health crisis.

An officer with the Montpelier Police Department shot and killed Johnson last month. Authorities said at the time that Johnson had a history of mental illness.

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