Major changes to Vets Home on table to help balance budget

MONTPELIER — Major changes to the Vermont Veterans Home are once again being considered as the state looks to address a large budget gap in the 2016 fiscal year state budget.

Shumlin administration officials say privatizing the state-run facility in Bennington, or even possibly closing it, are on the table with many other ideas to trim state spending. But those ideas are only concepts at the moment and not serious proposals.

The 2016 fiscal year budget gap has ballooned from $94 million in early January to at least $112 million following a revenue downgrade late last month. The Veterans Home relies on several million dollars from the state’s general fund to operate.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

The Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington.

Shumlin administration officials and legislative leaders both acknowledge that making changes to the Veterans Home has not advanced to a point where budget writers have explored what kind of savings could be achieved by privatizing or closing the home. However, those ideas that were once ruled out last year by former Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding are back.

Current Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson said this week that the administration and lawmakers are considering a range of ideas.

“In a sense, everything is on the table,” Johnson said. “The first thing for me is, does it get you any closer to the goal? I’m actually not sure that it does.”

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

“I’d say it’s no more or less on the table than any other idea that I don’t know if it gets you what you need,” he added.

Johnson cautioned that making any major changes to the way the Veterans Home is run remains a remote possibility.

“I don’t know enough to rule anything in or out. We still have this challenge of meeting the budget,” he said. “I would want to see the numbers. I would want to see the impact. I haven’t looked at any of those things. It’s not an idea that I’ve spent any time on.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, in an interview with the Vermont Press Bureau, also did not rule out the possibility of major changes to the home.

“I would say that our record shows that we don’t want to close the Veterans Home. We’ve been supportive of the Veterans Home. We want to keep the Veterans Home going. They deserve us. I do think that everything in state government has to be more efficient in order to balance this budget,” the governor said.

Shumlin said his administration has included funding for the home in the budgets that he has presented to lawmakers. But the state will need to find ways to reduce the impact of the home on the general fund.

“I have a record. My record as governor has been that despite the fact that the Veterans Home continues to need more and more money from the general fund, millions of dollars every year, we have supported the Veterans Home throughout my administration. We have done that throughout my administration and we have not supported privatization. We have done that because our veterans deserve that kind of treatment from us,” he said. “Having said that, we have also supported any plan … to try to figure out ways to ensure that we’re not constantly always losing money on the Veterans Home because the state can’t afford to do this forever.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he will oppose any effort to privatize or close the Veterans Home. He said the jobs it provides are important to the region.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“My job, amongst other things, is to represent Bennington County and Wilmington and one of those ways is keeping excellent state employee jobs in Bennington County,” Sears said. “I’ll do everything I can to prevent the privatization of the Veterans Home.”

Plasan North America, a Bennington-based defense contractor, announced last week that it will close its Vermont facility and move it to Michigan. Sears said the area cannot absorb the loss of jobs at the Veterans Home, too.

“Given what happened … with the announcement of Plasan, I think putting on top of that losing those good jobs would be a critical damage to Bennington’s economy and to the economy of the region,” he said.

Johnson said the administration is exploring options to bring veterans from Massachusetts, were there is a waiting list for space at state-run homes, to Vermont. Massachusetts has resisted in the past, however.

The administration is not yet exploring how much money could be saved by privatizing or closing the home. It is not yet clear if they will be among the ideas that are further explored to determine savings, according to Johnson.

“What I expect to happen, after we have more conversations with the Legislature around options and concepts and ideas, is that the next step would be to start running numbers. I don’t want to just start running numbers on everything that anyone dreams up because we’ll have people have work on all this stuff that perhaps goes nowhere,” he said. “If we’re able to narrow down where we’re going to go then we can do some number crunching.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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