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False Economy

04/18/08 5:55PM By Deborah Doyle-Schechtman
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(HOST) With the hard economic news of the past week, cuts are being made in state spending. But to writer and commentator Deborah Doyle-Schechtman one proposed budget-cutting measure doesn't seem to add up.

(DOYLE-SCHECHTMAN) There's been a lot of press lately about dwindling revenues, projected shortfalls and the generally bleak economic forecast nationally, regionally and locally. I understand that when money doesn't come in, dollars don't go out.  I understand the need for tightening our proverbial belts, and making sacrifices for the greater good.  Hard decisions have to be made. I get it.  Here's what I don't get.

The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, part of the Vermont Department of Housing, and hence the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, is responsible for over 100 historic structures, some of which comprise the 10 state owned sites open to the public. It's the smallest division in the smallest department of state government, and it's one that actually generates income. But recently the Agency announced that, as a cost saving measure, it will cut the operating hours of five of those sites.

The Hyde Log Cabin in Grand Isle is one of the oldest structures of its kind in the United States.  The Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford was home to the man who lead the effort that established the Land Grant Colleges, forerunners of the nation's university system. It also opened its new $600,000 education and visitor center just last year. The Old Constitution House in Windsor is where the first state constitution to prohibit slavery was drafted and signed. The Hubbardton Battlefield in Hubbardton played a significant role in our nation's fight for independence.  These sites will be affected, along and the birthplace of our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur, in Fairfield.  With the exception of The Hubbardton Battlefield, these properties will only be open on weekends.

Here's the rub, besides the fact that school children will not likely make class trips on weekends, one person has always staffed each of these seasonal sites.  One person has been responsible for providing the expected interpretation - and a host of other chores like mowing the lawn, maintaining trails and paths, cleaning, and providing security for the site on the days of operation.  It's reasonable to expect that in their absence someone else will have to be hired to pick up the slack. Overhead expenditures will still be incurred. Unemployment will have to be paid. Brochures, signs and websites will have to be redone to reflect the amended hours.

I did the math, and allowing for the variables in the proposed hours for each site, the state might hope to save, at best, $25,000 in wages.  Offset that by lost income, and perhaps more realistically we're looking at maybe $12 or $15,000. And when you factor in the alternative expenses that the state will have to pay anyway, I can't see how the resulting savings will amount to much of a difference in the $1.15 billion general fund, or make a significant contribution to the governor's newly proposed stimulus package.  I just don't see the sense in severely limiting Vermonters' and visitors' access to these rich historical and cultural resources for what amounts to, in the overall scheme of things, such a meager sum.  Seems like a false economy to me.
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