Shumlin: Vermont Will Not Wait For FEMA

09/12/12 4:04PM By John Dillon
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AP/Toby Talbot
Gov. Peter Shumlin holds a news conference on Wednesday at the state office complex in Waterbury.

Governor Peter Shumlin says he will push ahead with a $125 million plan to rebuild the Waterbury state office complex despite the uncertainty of federal funding.

Shumlin says he's confident that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will eventually help pay for the project.

But the governor says he doesn't know exactly how much the feds will provide, or when the money will come through.

Shumlin called a news conference after meeting Wednesday with a new team of FEMA officials handling Vermont Irene issues. The governor says he expressed his frustration that a year after Irene the state still doesn't know how much money it will get to rebuild.

But Shumlin says he got a word of warning back from FEMA.

"One thing FEMA made abundantly clear to me in the meeting is that if we push them prematurely for a quick conclusion, a quick number - which you know I desperately want - we are likely to risk leaving money on the table that Vermont deserves because they're going to give us a quick answer," he says.

So Shumlin said he's committing to rebuilding the Waterbury complex and revamping the state's mental health system even as his administration continues to chase the federal reimbursements.

He says he hopes to break ground on a new state hospital in Berlin before the ground freezes and start work in Waterbury this winter.

"This is a tough decision," he says. "Is there a risk? Absolutely. Is it the right decision? I believe it is. Can we leave Waterbury hanging through the winter? No."

The state office complex project will cost around $125 million to rebuild. The mental health piece - including a new hospital in Berlin - will cost an additional $45 million. The state was hoping to get $80 to 90 million from FEMA. Insurance payments are expected to provide another $15 million.

Shumlin said if FEMA falls short, he'll ask the state's congressional delegation and President Obama to pressure the agency. He says the Waterbury project may need to be scaled back as well.

"We'd also have to look at the option of reducing the number of employees - although I don't want to do this - in Waterbury from roughly 900 to about 806. That would save us roughly $20 million," he says.

The governor held his news conference on the lawn of the Waterbury state complex, surrounded by local officials.

Republican gubernatorial challenger Randy Brock was in the crowd as well. And Brock charged that Shumlin had failed to develop a contingency plan if the federal money doesn't come through.

"Those elements would include what's the cost of the worst case scenario and how are we going to pay for it. I didn't hear that today," Brock says.

Brock was in the state Senate when the Legislature approved the Waterbury and state hospital plan.  Brock said the Shumlin Administration should have been more clear about the funding uncertainty, and lawmakers - including himself - should have asked tougher questions.

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