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Barre City Mayor Thom Lauzon shares his vision for the city

A shot looking down Main Street in Barre, with store fronts to the left and right and several feet of water on the road.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
The floods of last summer factored heavily in Barre City's recent election.

Last week, Barre City residents reelected Thom Lauzon as mayor. He is an accountant, property owner and developer, skills that he says will help him move Barre City forward, create new housing, and protect it from future flooding. Barre was one of the hardest hit areas of the state during last summer’s flooding.

Lauzon is a very familiar name in Barre — he was mayor for 12 years until 2018, followed by a stint on City Council. He spoke with Vermont Edition about flood recovery, school budget votes and working with city council.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let's let's start with last summer's flooding. It was one of the key issues in this recent mayoral race. What are some of the ways in which the floods continue to have an impact on your community?

I mean, much of the impact we haven't actually felt yet. [Monday] evening, we will be getting a briefing at my request from the city manager on where our current operating deficit stands. We know we're going to experience an operating deficit. Our fiscal year ends on June 30, but we haven't yet quantified how much that operating deficit is going to be. I'm certain it's going to be well above six figures, probably approaching half a million dollars.

Has the state government offered any forms of support?

We were very fortunate. Our legislative delegation was successful in lobbying for the city to receive $1 million, but we received that million dollars that will be again in our in our current year operating fund. So if you look forward just one year as we start to build our 2024-2025 budget, we're starting out a million dollars in the hole, so it's sort of a mixed blessing. We're certainly grateful for the support, but we acknowledge that it makes next year that much more difficult.

So more financial impacts still to play out. What about in terms of effects on infrastructure and maintenance needs?

Obviously, roads were affected by floodwaters. Again, we were very grateful for assistance that we received on the north end from the state of Vermont assistance in rebuilding Route 302, which was virtually impassable. But you know, some of the other effects are the effects on our grand list, we had over 300 structures that were affected. We've abated property taxes on approximately 50 of those structures to date. Just the few quarters that we have abated. That's over $100,000 in revenue that we won't see. So we've got our work cut out for us, Mikaela, but we can do it.

Let's talk about a specific project that has been proposed in Barre City. Last fall, Gov. Phil Scott released a plan to redevelop the North End neighborhood with a park and apartment buildings, multi-story buildings. First, you're a developer and a property owner. Do you have any official role in this project outside of your role as mayor?

Oh no, absolutely not.

What are your views on the project as it was proposed by the governor in the fall? And have you spoken with him about it recently?

I have, and what the governor proposed was assistance. I don't think the governor ever intended to propose a specific project. [He] came to a regular regular meeting of the Barre City Council, which in and of itself, was unprecedented. I've served the city for decades and I can never remember a sitting governor coming to a city council meeting offering a $50 million project and offering his pledge to help. We're so grateful for that support, but we have a lot of work to do.

At that same meeting, Secretary Lindsay Kurrle was also at that meeting. And I'm someone who thrives on deadlines. I like plans. I like procedure, and I like to have a deadline. I asked the secretary, 'When do you need to have us respond with our vision for what the north end might look like?' She responded, March 31, 2024, we held a series of neighborhood meetings throughout the city so that we could get feedback from residents in terms of what their vision was for the north end, and then we kind of stalled. That was, you know, one of the frustrations that I voiced during the campaign. It's May, and we still don't have that plan. We don't have that conceptual plan. One of the things that I'm going to be asking the administration and the council to do is get going on that plan and let's finalize it.

On your list of priorities for the coming months, where does this North End development project stand?

It's very high on the list of priorities. I think it's high on on everyone's priority list. I'm not aware of anyone who campaigned for mayor or city council, who indicated that rebuilding and mitigating flood effects on the North End was a low priority for them. The good part is that everyone who is sitting on the City Council that I'm aware of shares the same priorities. North End recovery and mitigation, our flood recovery, our financial stability, housing — we all share those priorities. It's just coming up with a conceptual plan and specific collateral pieces that we can advance.

With housing comes taxes — property taxes, to be specific. A number of school districts, including the Barre Union Unified School District, have failed to pass a budget, in large part due to concerns over rising property taxes, which helped fund the school systems in Vermont. If a budget doesn't pass by the summer, the school district can borrow up to 87% of last year's budget. Barre's budget has has failed twice now. Mayor, how did you vote on the budget?

I did not support the budget.

Why not?

I think the path is unsustainable. You know, we look at school spending — and not just in Barre City, but throughout Vermont. It is an unsustainable path. You can't continue to have 18% increases on the education side of property taxes. The math doesn't work.

So what's the path forward here?

I chaired the school board many, many years ago, decades ago, when we looked at how we were delivering educational services. And at that point in time, we had five neighborhood schools in the City of Barre. The interesting thing back then — and this is probably 30 years ago — was if you went from ward to ward, if you went from school to school, the experience couldn't be more different. There were certain schools where the parents were very involved and really supported the school. And it was a different atmosphere. And this is in a three square mile city.

So we changed the model. We recognize that we couldn't keep pouring money into the school buildings that weren't even up to code. So it was a bold step. And we closed our five neighborhood schools. When we built the Central School, we changed the delivery model.

This is not something that's going to happen overnight. It's something that's going to take time, but we can't continue to increase budgets by you know, 18 to 23% while we do it.

But then what happens in the next school year, if Barre's school budget is about 87% of what it was last year?

I wouldn't be a proponent of 87%. I'm hopeful. There were a lot of lot of voices in the room. I'm hopeful that going forward, our school district can can reschedule the vote. I think they can listen to the concerns of the voters. And I think there is a path forward. I think there's a common ground. I think everyone wants to support our schools. But everyone also recognizes that we can't continue to see these double digit increases.

Let me ask you about a another issue that went before voters in Barre City. The city voted on a charter change to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections. One other Vermont town has this policy on the books — Brattleboro. You oppose the idea, and it also didn't pass. Why did you oppose it?

Well, for a few reasons. First of all, it occurred to me after we had had all of the discussions that I heard from a lot of adults, I've heard from a lot of people who were in their 30s, their 40s or 50s. Interestingly, through all the meetings we had, I never heard from 16 or 17 year olds who supported the idea. That made me think a little bit. If it's something that 16 and 17 year olds want so much, why weren't they willing to weigh in in a public meeting?

Secondly, it actually was pointed out to me by our former city clerk Carol Dawes, that while 16 and 17 year olds could vote, they couldn't sit on the City Council. They couldn't sit in the school board seat. So you know, honestly, as I looked at it, it felt a little disingenuous to me that we would use them for their vote, but we won't allow them to run for office.

Ahead of today's show, we received some emails with concerns about your personal style of communication in Council meetings. One person went so far as to say it affects people's interest in participating in local government. Another says that a majority of the new Council members are progressive women, and their agenda does not align with yours, and asks, 'How are you going to work with them in a productive way and respect the will of the majority who elected them in Barre City'? I'm curious for your response there and on other concerns about your style of communication.

I guess I tend to be direct and honest, I don't have ulterior motives. It's interesting that people would draw that conclusion. I held the office for 12 years, I was effective during those 12 years, we got projects done during those 12 years. And interestingly, we haven't even had a Council meeting yet. And people are already saying that my agenda doesn't align with theirs and that we can't work together. Well, gee, that sounds productive doesn't it?

So you're not concerned?

Well, look, if people want to make up their mind about me, and people who don't even know me want to judge me? Look, I make progress. That's how I roll. I do value people's opinions. But I also value deadlines.

We have to get going. We are we are going on 11 months since this flood, and we don't have a recovery plan. That's unconscionable. And that's not on me. That's on the former mayor.

We've talked a lot about some of the challenges that Barre City faces, and some of the changes that might be coming to the city. But I want to end by by giving you an opportunity to tell us about your favorite thing about Barre City, something that you hope never changes?

Barry, this is a community. I served on the Miracle Coalition for a dozen years. And I would talk to other mayors and other communities and they talked to me about how hard it would be to raise money for good causes in their community. And I thought about Barre, and that's just not the case.

People who can't even afford to give you $25 will give you $25. The sense of community here in Barre and how strong it is, how badly people want to succeed, and how willing they are to do their share — that's something that's very unique. In Barre, I don't think that's ever going to change.

So, look, I'm here to work with people. I'm here to value people. But most importantly, I'm here to move this community forward. We're gonna have a tough time if we don't.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.