Gekas supports return of state workers with FEMA funding
By David Taube
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | September 25,2012
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Democratic and Progressive Party lieutenant governor candidate Cassandra Gekas speaks Monday at a news conference she called at the Waterbury state office complex to support Gov. Peter Shumlin's plans to bring state workers back to Waterbury.
WATERBURY — As the Federal Emergency Management Agency moves to meet a key deadline next month, Cassandra Gekas, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said Monday she wants to bring as many state workers back to the area to the extent federal funds allow.
“Vermont does not turn its back on its citizens in times of economic crisis, and we’re not going to do that now,” said Gekas, 30, the Democratic-Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor and a former health care advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Gekas stressed her support Monday to bring back state workers to the extent possible given funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Incumbent Phil Scott, however, said he thinks the issue is not whether the number of state workers returning could be lessened but how many old buildings should be reused.
“I think we need to move forward on this, no doubt about it, but there are ways to approach this so that we don’t get in over our heads, and we can’t break the bank on this either,” Scott said Monday.
FEMA’s new federal coordinating officer for Vermont, Mark Landry, said the agency planned to meet a key deadline Oct. 15 to finish building assessments among other work. Damage estimates due to Tropical Storm Irene have been available for some time, but an ongoing, lengthy process for building assessments has only produced results for certain key buildings, he said Monday.
His team seeks to have a status update for numerous funding options for the state Jan. 15, but the date could be changed, he said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin announced earlier this month that the state would go ahead with building a new state hospital in Berlin despite a lack of certainty about how much funding the new facility might receive from FEMA.
State officials say they’re also proceeding with plans and work at the Waterbury state office complex. But the state doesn’t want to begin demolition until it receives the OK from FEMA that doing so wouldn’t jeopardize funding.
One option to cut costs Shumlin has identified is reducing the number of state workers returning to the state office complex. He said it’s possible to reduce the number of employees from around 950 to about 810, but he opposes that possibility.
Gekas also said that may be an option if FEMA money is less than expected and bonding and savings could not fill the gap.
But she also suggested she’s worried her opponent could raise concerns over funding of the state office complex and indicate the need to scale back plans. She said she wants plans for the new state hospital as well as the Waterbury state office complex to be a priority.
Scott, however, said the number of state workers returning should stay the same. He said the state may have to rely more on reusing old buildings at the complex in order to do so.
Vermont State Employees’ Association President John Reese and legislative coordinator for the union, Conor Casey, attended a press conference for Gekas at the state office complex Monday.
The VSEA, which has some 5,200 members and some 900 additional partial-paying members who have union rights, announced its endorsement last week for Gekas along with other endorsements for candidates seeking statewide offices. The state has more than 7,000 workers.
“We agree with candidate Gekas that Gov. Shumlin in Vermont shouldn’t allow the lingering federal money question to dictate the state’s Waterbury complex rebuilding decisions going forward,” Reese said.
Gekas said since the storm, the state has seen triumphs and challenges in communities across the state. But she also said the state needs to invest in infrastructure in part to help the economy.
“At a time when the national discussion is really focused on revenue forecasts, it’s focused on austerity measures,” Gekas said, “It can be tempting for us to forget about the individual stories and the investments that we need to make to leave Vermont even stronger.”