Five gray-haired women headed to Burlington City Hall last month to advocate for the Heineberg Community Senior Center, which hadn't received an anticipated grant from the United Way of Northwest Vermont. Altana Bullard, who goes to the New North End center regularly to socialize, play bridge and get her blood pressure checked, asked the city council to fill the gap in the center's $125,000 annual budget.
"We are a significant organization in this community," added board president Linda Ayer.
The councilors listened.
On June 18, they approved a municipal budget that includes $58,000 for Heineberg, up from $40,000 last year. The financial plan also allocates more than $700,000 to address early childhood education, homelessness, community programs and mental health crises.
In the last two years, the City of Burlington has increasingly played the role of benevolent philanthropist, funding nonprofits that have traditionally been bankrolled by the state and private donors.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said that in the face of shrinking outside funding sources and "major emerging social challenges" such as the opiate epidemic, the city has had little choice but to open its wallet.
"If we don't step up, no one's going to be there to do it," he said.
In 2017, the mayor allocated $500,000 to help for-profit and nonprofit daycare centers expand capacity for low-income children.
The same year, the city designated $77,500 in new funding to the Howard Center's street outreach team, which responds to people in crisis, backfilling lost state funding, according to Weinberger. Both allocations were renewed this year and will likely become permanent, the mayor said.
The city has also budgeted $60,000 to expand the operating season for the Community Health Centers of Burlington's winter warming shelter, which will allow it to stay open until June 15 in 2019.
Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Central District) said Weinberger has been "wise to respond" to the opiate crisis and the needs of the homeless, though she warned that such support becomes an ongoing commitment.
That's the case for Heineberg, acknowledged director Beth Hammond, who said she's looking for "a closer partnership" with the city. She pointed to the Champlain Senior Center, which Burlington saved from closure in 2016. Now, the city's Department of Parks, Recreation & Waterfront runs it. The cost to the city is the same as its spending on Heineberg: $58,000.
The Community Health Centers of Burlington wouldn't have extended its shelter's operation without a stable funding source, said Kim Anderson, the organization's director of development and communications.
"There needs to be a structured plan," she said — "a little more than just, 'Let's just try and fundraise for this.'"
Each time the city has stepped up, Weinberger said, "We see a very compelling local need, an intersection with municipal interest. We're not just indiscriminately writing checks."
Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District) agreed. "The money we have doled out to the Heineberg Senior Center is the difference between them making it and not making it," he said.
Vermont Agency of Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille said he hasn't heard of other municipalities making similar investments in social services — though, he added, he has no way to be sure. He said it sounds to him as if Burlington had "just chosen to do more."
The city's goal to expand access to opiate addiction treatment could require additional municipal investment. Hartnett said he has further proposed using city funds to prop up Steps to End Domestic Violence, which also lost United Way funding.
As long as Burlington property tax rates don't increase, few people will object, said Knodell.
"In future years, when we have tighter budgets, we're not going to be able to maintain the level of city services without tax rate increases," she said. "That's when our resolve will be tested."