It’s winter in Vermont, although it’s 40 degrees in Burlington, there’s no snow on the ground and my neighbor, Tom, is moping about the house. He has a new collapsible ice shanty, auger and tip-ups sitting in his basement unused, because the ice on Lake Champlain (what there is of it) is not thick enough to support ice fishing.
So we distract ourselves in other ways. Town meeting falls on March 7 this year. For most Vermont towns, it means a day-long discussion of town business at the town hall, punctuated by a dish-to-pass lunch. There are too many people (40,000) in Burlington for us all to gather in one spot, so we just vote at our ward polling places.

The mayor’s seat is open for the first time in over a decade and five candidates are running. There’s a Republican, Democrat and a Progressive. In Burlington, Progressives are not a “third party,” they’ve controlled the mayor’s office for all but two of the past 25 years. There are also two independent candidates, whose primary function is to provide comic relief at campaign events. One vowed to solve the city’s financial woes by going to Iraq “to get some of those bundles of money I saw the troops throwing around like footballs on TV.” Whatever, dude.

Four of the five (Mr. “Money Football” was missing) came to a meet-and-greet in my neighborhood Thursday. They fielded the usual questions about taxes and whether to stop fluoridating the water (that’s a“usual question” in Burlington), then I stood up and said:

The city and Burlington school district face serious budget challenges. A primary (although not the only) reason for these challenges is the fact that when the last budgets were passed, the price of oil was approximately $45 per barrel. In September, the price shot up past $60 per barrel, where it has remained since. The prices of gasoline and heating fuels have similarly increased.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that before the next mayor’s first term is over (in three years), the price of oil will be in the $80-$90 per barrel range and the effects on the city will be more drastic that those we are currently experiencing.

If elected, how will you prepare the City of Burlington to meet increased energy costs and potential energy shortages?

First they stared at me, then an attack of politeness overcame the group and they all gesticulated to the others that, “Oh no, please, you gofirst.”

I’ll admit, I did sneak up on them and threw a curveball, so I won’t embarrass them by attaching names to their responses. (There’s a reason Vermonters have a reputation for being polite.)

Two of them talked about the city’s tax structure. (Hey, if you can’t address the question, talk about something you do know.) Two talked about electricity, perhaps not realizing that very little of New England’s and none of Burlington’s electricity is generated by oil. One did use the words “alternate energy” and “biodiesel,” but they were merely among the words he shouted out at random. One said neighborhood schools are
important and one said a spike in oil prices would constitute an emergency, so he’d wait until the emergency struck and form a committee. One began to be close to a coherent answer by calling for better public transit and more energy efficient buildings, but that’s about as close as any in the group got.

To their credit, two candidates approached me later and offered to have a longer discussion about the issue.

The outgoing mayor, who was in attendance, jumped up to say that Burlington, although it has grown significantly since his term began in 1989, uses less electricity today than it did then, thanks to aggressive efficiency programs by our local electric company and Burlington’s wood-burning generation plant. Again, electricity is not oil, but his point was that we can do much better than the national average when we try.

Small cities like Burlington will have to try and try hard to mitigate the coming increases in the price of oil. It won’t be an “emergency” when the price of oil hits $80, then $90 a barrel, because many knowledgeable people have been warning us for some time. It will be an emergency onlyif we fail to heed those warnings and take appropriate action.

The mayoral candidates in Burlington are smart, civic-minded people who want to make our city a better place to live. The fact that they were dumbstruck by my question only means that this issue has not been on their radar screens. That’s one reason I threw the curveball Thursday night.

We’ve got a citizens’ peak oil action group up and running in Northwest Vermont (and a few in other places around the state) and we’re making sure these issues get into public debate in this spring campaign season and again in the fall.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Mark Floegel

Burlington, VT