By Adam Federman, VTDigger
RUTLAND—At the first mayoral debate hosted by PEG-TV two weeks ago, Kam Johnston responded to a question dealing with the city’s infrastructure needs by saying, “Ironically enough it’s gotten a little tense and it’s not me.”
The irony was in the fact that the debate had hardly gotten underway, with each candidate giving brief opening remarks. Mayor Chris Louras, running for his sixth term, had answered the opening question with an overview of his administration’s investment in the city’s aging infrastructure and roads.
Louras also admonished the Board of Aldermen for standing in the way of some of those projects. Sitting next to him was Dave Allaire, who has served on the board for 19 years and opposed Louras in the last two mayoral elections. Louras won both of those elections handily with about 57 percent of the vote.
This year, though, may be different. The city has endured a year-long debate over refugee resettlement, an acrimonious and protracted showdown over the fire department budget, and a good deal of mud slinging between the board and the mayor. Tensions are running high.
Even Mike Coppinger, the executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership, felt compelled to dispel rumors that he entered the race in order to split the vote and put the mayor back in office. He told viewers he was running for mayor because he cares deeply about the future of the city, not because of some back room deal.
Allaire has positioned himself as the only candidate who can heal a divided city. “I want to bring transparency, respect, and trust back into the mayor’s office, which is sorely lacking,” he said. Allaire has focused his message on job creation and economic development, without providing much detail on either.
“I think Dave is telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear,” said Coppinger.
Coppinger has proposed a city wide, 1 percent sales tax that would be used to invest in infrastructure improvements and to contribute to the city’s pension fund. Coppinger says a similar tax has been adopted in other towns, including Rutland Town, Killington, and Middlebury, and it would bring in about $1.3 million a year in revenue.
According to a 2009 study commissioned by the Downtown Partnership, about half of all dollars spent in Rutland come from outside the city. Coppinger says he’d like to leverage that money and invest it back into Rutland while simultaneously reducing the city’s tax rate.
Allaire has said his goal would be to stabilize if not reduce spending in the city and that he opposes any sort of new sales tax. Asked how he would further reduce spending—the board cut over $1 million from this year’s budget, which is still up more than 5 percent—Allaire said that would be something to flesh out with department heads if he’s elected.
Kam Johnston, who is running for several positions, including mayor, says he’s the only candidate truly committed to cutting the budget. Johnston says he plans to vote “No” on what he calls the “Louras-Allaire” budget on Town Meeting Day, which would allow the board to then make additional cuts.
“When Allaire suggests he’s anti-tax, his record doesn’t match that,” said Johnston. Johnston has also said he would scrap funding set aside for a new pool, privatize the recreation department, and advocate for removing fluoride from the water supply.
More than any other candidate, Allaire has tapped into the simmering frustration over the mayor’s handling of the refugee resettlement process. In July, Allaire proposed hiring outside counsel to investigate the mayor’s conduct and whether it violated city charter. The city attorney ended up doing the review and cleared the mayor of any wrongdoing.
Allaire says he supports refugees but opposes the current program. He has been endorsed by Rutland First, a group that formed in opposition to refugee resettlement in Rutland.
Mayor Louras rejects the notion that the March 7 election is a referendum on refugee resettlement and said if it were, he’d come away with a vast majority of votes.
“I’m still convinced that the majority of the people of Rutland absolutely support refugee resettlement and recognize its benefits,” he said.
He said the idea that the city is divided is a “convenient narrative for candidates who want to see a change in leadership at the top.”
Louras feels the election should be about the city’s ongoing struggle with the opiate crisis and efforts to reverse years of demographic decline. Louras says the success of Project Vision, a community policing initiative that has led to a reduction in drug-related crime also means the issue is getting less public attention.
“Furthering the goals of Project Vision is the most important short-term issue facing the community,” Louras said. “There’s too much at stake to put someone in the mayor’s office that doesn’t understand or buy into it,” he said. “And frankly, I’m the only candidate that understands it and buys into it.”
Louras dismissed the notion that there was any sort of conflict between he and the board. As a former alderman Louras said he recognizes the duty and authority of the board as well as that of the mayor.
“When I was a board member I didn’t want mayors telling me what to do; as mayor I don’t want the board telling me what to do,” Louras said.
Veteran board member Sharon Davis, however, said the relationship between the mayor and the board has never been quite this tendentious. Davis, who has served for 26 years and under three different mayors, said Louras has undercut the board’s authority.
Coppinger, who served on the board with Allaire and Louras from 2001 to 2007, says the fractious relationship between the mayor and board is impeding efforts to revitalize the city. “I don’t think they [Louras and Allaire] have the ability to mend the fence that they are responsible for breaking,” Coppinger said.