Irene’s financial hit to state government continues
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | August 29,2013
WATERBURY — On the evening of Aug. 26, 2011, as a tropical storm made its way slowly up the Eastern seaboard, state workers in Vermont left their offices and headed home for what looked to be a wet and windy, if otherwise unremarkable, weekend.
Irene’s arrival here that Sunday, of course, would have more profound impacts than anyone could have anticipated on that fair-weather Friday. And for most of the 1,362 state employees headquartered at the historic Waterbury office complex, that workday would prove to be their last at what had for decades been the nerve center of state government.
Two years later, a workforce once concentrated on a campus of old brick buildings is now scattered in far-flung locations across the state. And while the wheels of government continue to turn, the upheaval hasn’t been without its challenges.
“As to day-to-day programs and services, people are all receiving their benefits, receiving their visitations, and all the fundamentals of state government are being accomplished,” Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said Wednesday. “As far as the bigger picture of coordinating policy and strategy between divisions and departments, it hasn’t been optimal.”
At a news conference today, to be held outside Waterbury offices mothballed for the past two years, Gov. Peter Shumlin and FEMA chief Craig Fugate will announce final federal funding amounts for the construction of a new office complex in the same location.
But the ribbon-cutting on the new facility isn’t expected until the end of 2015, meaning government, and the employees commuting to their temporary workplaces, will have to endure the fiscal, operational and logistical problems that come with maintaining 37 separate offices in 11 towns and cities.
All told, the state of Vermont is spending $578,000 on monthly rent as of June, the most recent data state officials could provide. Annualized, the rental costs total nearly $7 million (though not all workspaces may be rented for the entire year), and that doesn’t include the up-front expenses of preparing the buildings for the workers’ arrival.
It also doesn’t include the $88,000 check Vermont writes to National Life Group every month to house permanently the 345 employees from the Agency of Natural Resources who used to work in Waterbury.
Spaulding said much of those costs will be covered by either insurance or federal assistance.
“From the employer perspective, we do what we need to do,” Spaulding said. “But there is certainly a lot of stress it can place on some of our employees.”
Staff that formerly worked alongside hundreds of colleagues are now working in small offices in teams of two and three people in some cases. At 439 Industrial Ave. in Berlin, for example, five state workers who oversee the state chapter of the Corporation for National and Community Service now spend their days in a space owned by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont.
Four employees for the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, meanwhile, now commute to an office at 81 River St. in Montpelier.
“The unexpected and huge employee upheaval caused by Irene is still being felt today across state government, but there is a lot of quiet resignation now, as after two years, most employees have accepted their temporary situation and adapted as asked,” said Vermont State Employees Association President John Reese. “However, that is not to say that many displaced VSEA members are still not longing to return to Waterbury, or other familiar surroundings with real office and meeting space, because they are, and the union is still asked regularly for any status updates we can supply to members.”
Other temporary locations have been transformed into hubs of state government in their own right, if only for a few years.
More than 160 state workers occupy buildings at four addresses on Hurricane Lane in Williston, including 50 employees staffing three call centers for the Department for Children and Families in one spot, and 32 evaluating health access eligibility at another location just down the street.
The rental costs add up quickly: $22,985 a month for the 50-person call center; $59,595 monthly for the IBM facility in Essex Junction occupied by 185 employees from the Agency of Human Services; and $350,086 a month to keep 135 employees from the departments of Fish and Wildlife and Environmental Conservation at the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. office complex at 10 E. Allen Drive in Winooski.
In addition to the $578,000 in monthly rent being incurred as a result of the relocations, Vermont has spent $618,000 to make those temporary spaces suitable for the workers assigned to them. The number doesn’t include the $9.1 million revamp at the National Life building in Montpelier, about a third of which the state’s new landlord will pay for.
Fit-up costs included $106,000 at the Northern Power River Park in Waitsfield, $129,000 at VSAC and $171,000 at a single location on Industrial Avenue in Williston at which 49 employees now work.
Moving costs back in late 2011 and early 2012 also added up, totaling $158,000, and that doesn’t include the $238,000 to establish telecommunication infrastructure at the various locations.
Even meals and mileage for state employees’ Irene-related travel went well into six figures. Between mileage reimbursement, expensed lunches, per diems for reassigned state hospital workers and the three bus routes operated by the state to minimize the impact of newly extended commutes, Vermont has spent more than $400,000.