A top state official stunned lawmakers last Friday with the announcement that the Federal Emergency Management Agency apparently was backing away from funding assurances to help replace the Vermont State Hospital and rebuild the Waterbury state office complex that were closed by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
“We have recently learned that the information provided previously was not correct,” Deputy Administration Secretary Michael Clasen told the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee. “We’re now in a position where there is less certainty regarding how much FEMA will participate in funding both the state hospital and the Waterbury state office complex.”
Clasen detailed a $120 million funding gap between the anticipated costs and other non-FEMA revenue sources for plans passed by lawmakers during their regular session this past spring. In question now is how much of that gap FEMA will fill.
“To use a baseball analogy, if a home run is equal to the amount of funding we thought we were going to receive from FEMA, based on information they provided months ago, today FEMA is giving us signals that we may not even make it to first base,” Clasen said.
Lawmakers expressed dismay that they had made plans based on expectations of FEMA support that now appears far less certain.
“How does FEMA explain having someone here for all these months giving us this information that we rely on to make incredibly important decisions, and now saying none of that was right?” asked Rep. Marta Heath, D-Westford and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Steven Ward, FEMA’s deputy federal coordinating officer overseeing the agency’s work in Vermont, said in a telephone interview that the agency had committed $123 million to the state for public projects following five disasters that have hit Vermont in the past 15 months, and nearly $23 million to private property owners who had suffered losses, mainly to flooding.
Ward said it was too early to say whether Vermont would get most of the help it is seeking, and he defended his agency from complaints that it had provided misleading information.
“I don’t believe that the information that was provided fundamentally was flawed,” Ward said.
Ward said FEMA’s review process is complex, and will take into account factors ranging from the historic value of the Waterbury buildings to whether flood protection measures could be built at the site allowing, for example, the state hospital to reopen there.
“This is one of the most complex projects I’ve been involved with,” Ward said, adding he could not say how it might turn out.
Lawmakers had passed general fund and state construction budgets calling for:
• Replacing the 54-bed Vermont State Hospital with a new, 25-bed facility in Berlin and other, smaller psychiatric units at private hospitals around the state.
• Demolishing some of the 70 buildings that made up the Waterbury complex that housed both the hospital and a surrounding campus that contained the headquarters offices of several key state agencies.
• Renovating some of the Waterbury buildings and adding new construction to bring back to Waterbury the Agency of Human Services. That largest division of state government includes departments that range from children’s and adult protective services to departments that administer Medicaid and public assistance to the Department of Corrections.
• Moving the Agency of Natural Resources, which had been headquartered in Waterbury, to newly renovated office space in Montpelier.