City of Burlington, housing authority look to cooperate on Decker Towers security issues

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Decker Towers in Burlington on Tuesday, August 22, 2023.

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Decker Towers in Burlington on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Decker Towers in Burlington on Aug. 22. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — The Burlington Housing Authority and the city appear to be closing in on a plan to confront ongoing security and safety issues at the Decker Towers apartment complex.

At a city council meeting on Monday, residents of the Burlington high-rise and officers of the housing authority, which operates the building, urged the City Council to help pay for new security measures, specifically round-the-clock security guards on the premises.

“The residents aren’t looking for ‘give us, give us, give us’ — we just want a safe home,” said Cathy Foley, a Decker Towers resident, at Monday’s meeting.

Although city officials did not specify the extent to which they would provide financial support, the mayor and several council members expressed commitment to working with residents and the housing authority on a solution.

“The city is very interested in being a partner to BHA through this challenge, both with the immediate and acute needs in the building as well as medium and longer term efforts that may be needed to properly resource the building and the organization,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said at Monday’s meeting.

Decker Towers is the largest Section 8 housing complex in Burlington, primarily serving low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

In recent years, however, residents and housing authority officials say that the building has become a center of drug use and distribution, alleging that several current and former residents have used and sold illicit substances in the building. The apartment complex has also increasingly been host to unauthorized visitors who sneak into the building and squat in common spaces, often leaving needles, garbage, and even human waste behind, according to residents. 

Those tensions were reported in an extensive Seven Days story published earlier this month. 

“We would like the City Council and the city to come in and help us,” Steven Murray, the Burlington Housing Authority’s executive director, said at Monday’s meeting. “We do firmly believe that security guards will have a huge impact.”

Although the housing authority employs a private security contractor to conduct nightly walkthroughs at Decker Towers, the organization and residents have maintained that round-the-clock guards would be necessary to fully handle the safety and security issues the residents confront.

The price of those security guards has been a point of contention thus far in discussions between the housing authority and the city, however. Because each round-the-clock post would require several full-time employees to fill, the two positions would cost over $600,000 dollars, according to the housing authority. 

Murray sent a proposal to the mayor’s office at the beginning of February, requesting the money for the positions. The housing authority has said it cannot pay for the guards itself due to budget constraints and cost overruns at Decker Towers.

According to correspondence between the mayor’s administration and the housing authority shared with VTDigger, the mayor’s administration initially pushed back on that proposal, offering instead a six-point plan for generally upgrading building security measures, including requiring a log book for guests to sign and disabling the call box that individuals used to request access to the building.

The housing authority, in turn, questioned the efficacy of those measures, and talks cooled off.

“The original response from the mayor’s office was sticker shock — ‘this is way too much money,’” Murray said in an interview with VTDigger. “Then talks did break down over our disagreements on some of the suggestions that the mayor’s office was making.”

In recent weeks, however, as the problems at Decker Tower have reached a fever pitch, the mayor’s administration and city council members have returned to the problem with redoubled interest.

This past weekend, Weinberger and most of the city council members conducted a walk-through of Decker Towers to observe the situation firsthand.

On Feb. 23, moreover, Brian Pine, director of the city’s Community & Economic Development Office, sent Murray a memo outlining a framework for a potential memorandum of understanding between the city and the housing authority.

In that memo, Pine emphasized the city’s support of the housing authority and said that the city was “open to providing financial support” for select expenses and “time-limited, coordinated enhanced police support” for Decker Towers — though he didn’t specifically mention security guards.

In an interview with VTDigger, Murray said that, following the council meeting, the housing authority would work on potentially implementing some of the mayor’s recommendations. At the same time, they will continue to push for the two round-the-clock security positions, but would be willing to compromise in some way with one guard or fewer hours “if the city determines that the funding just isn’t there,” he said. 

“They clearly understand that the situation is going to merit city action, but we still don’t have a dollar amount. We don’t have an exact idea what they’re talking about,” Murray said. Despite the uncertainty, he expressed his optimism that the two groups would iron out the specifics of a plan soon.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Murray said. “Everybody’s on board. It’s just a matter of working out the details on the dollar amounts.” 

In the meantime, Murray said, the housing authority plans to increase the number of walkthroughs its security contractor conducts, and it has contacted the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Department to conduct similar patrols at Decker Towers for an increased law enforcement presence.

Read the story on VTDigger here: City of Burlington, housing authority look to cooperate on Decker Towers security issues.