State seeks to keep post-Irene AOT hires
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | December 07,2013
MONTPELIER — With recovery from Tropical Storm Irene still underway in parts of the state, the Shumlin administration is asking lawmakers to extend the terms of 38 temporary transportation workers brought on in the wake of the 2011 floods.
Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles this week told the House Appropriations Committee that district garages across the state still have their hands full with more than 200 Irene-related infrastructure projects that have yet to be “closed out.”
In the meantime, he said, storms between Memorial Day and July 4 this year resulted in nearly 400 additional repair projects on the state and town transportation systems. Searles said the “limited-service” employees hired after Irene — who do both labor and administrative tasks — will be critical to those projects.
“There will be another significant piece of our budget dealing with just Irene in our transportation bill,” Searles said of the fiscal 2015 budget proposal Gov. Peter Shumlin will unveil next month.
When Searles testified before the same committee two years ago, he said the 38 positions would be paid for mostly by federal aid and that they would expire after two years. But Scott Rogers, who oversees statewide maintenance functions at the Agency of Transportation, said the employees have come to play a vital role in disaster recovery, especially for municipal road departments that often lack the staff and expertise to navigate the bureaucracy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“One of the things we learned during Irene is that the towns in general are not staffed up well to handle such a disaster, or to work with FEMA in particular,” Rogers said. “Some have robust staffs, some don’t. And they need us to really help shepherd them through the project.”
Rogers said the limited-service positions brought onto the rolls in late 2011 have played a central role in providing that guidance.
“I can’t state enough how important this service is to the towns,” he said.
Searles said the positions would cost about $2 million over the next two fiscal years. But he said federal assistance will cover about half that, and that he has enough state revenues to make up the difference without hurting other agency operations.
Searles said the employees have become valuable members of the agency team and that his plan is to fold them into permanent government slots as longtime workers at the agency retire over the next two years.
Searles and Rogers said holding onto the workers will help resolve not only the disasters of the past but also any future major weather events.
“I think everybody’s feeling is we’re getting more events, and more intense events,” Rogers said. “So the more we can do to be ready for it, the better off we’re going to be.”