Category Archives: Irene & Recovery

Towns receive millions in federal community development money

 MONTPELIER — Thirteen municipalities in Vermont will share in more than $4 million in federal dollars to provide economic development, low-income housing and recovery from Tropical Storm Irene.

Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced nearly $4.3 million in grants ranging from $19,000 to $850,000 from the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The grants are funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

“Spring is coming and soon these grants will lead to construction projects across state that will help improve communities, grow jobs and spur economic growth,” Shumlin said. “From Lyndon to Wilmington, these projects will help our small towns complete disaster recovery projects, create more affordable housing and further develop their communities.”

“While targeted to the needs of lower income Vermonters, these projects will benefit their towns in many ways and for years to come,” said Patricia Moulton, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “Each will make their community stronger from building new affordable homes in the heart of Hinesburg and ensuring all residents can access the public library in Washington to repairing Brandon’s historic town office building.”

The town of Brandon received $500,000 to repair and rehabilitate the town office, which was significantly damaged during the flooding that followed Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“Most of the project wasn’t FEMA eligible,” said Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland. “It left a huge gap and the town just can’t afford to do the work on it.”

Rutland County was the recipient of the single-largest grant award, with $850,000 going to NeighborWorks of Western Vermont in West Rutland, to be used to continue the organization’s loan fund for home repairs and energy efficiency improvements.

“NeighborWorks does a lot of good things for Rutland County. It’s definitely needed,” Flory said. “Rutland County sometimes seems the county that gets forgotten and so it’s really encouraging to see this.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Barre City, which received $19,830 to determine the feasibility of establishing Granite City Grocery, a proposed co-op grocery store, in downtown Barre.

“We are gong to use this funding for planning and organizing purposes to hire some critical skill sets that we don’t currently have on our board,” said Rebecca Pincus, who is on the Granite City Grocery board.

Picus said the grant will help the organization choose a location and start a capital campaign to make a downtown grocery store a reality.

“It will provide opportunities for those who are mobility limited and it will continue the great revitalization of downtown Barre that is going on,” Picus said.

Other grants include:

Athens — $412,620 for Tropical Storm Irene road repairs;

Brattleboro — $425,000 to Windham & Windsor Housing Trust for the rehabilitation of 29 units of affordable housing in town;

Chester — $108,000 for road repairs following Tropical Storm Irene;

Hinesburg — $675,000 to build 24 units of affordable housing

Lyndon — $500,000 to rehabilitate 28 units of low-income senior housing.

Rochester — $30,000 for affordable senior housing;

Warren — $275,000 to improve safety and accessibility in the village downtown;

Washington — $75,000 for improvements to Calef Memorial Library;

Wilmington — $300,000 to construct a downtown sidewalk.

Exchange tax documents in the mail, state says

MONTPELIER — State officials are warning Vermonters who obtained health insurance through Vermont Health Connect to be on the lookout for important tax documents that should arrive in the mail by next week.

More than 25,000 1095-A forms have been mailed to Vermonters. The form has the financial information customers provided when signing up for health insurance coverage on the state’s online marketplace.

But Chief of Health Care Reform Lawrence Miller said some customers may experience problems because not all change of circumstance requests have been processed by the state. Another batch of changes is expected to be processed by Feb. 20, so some customers may received a corrected 1095-A.

“There will be some that get corrections but that doesn’t necessarily slow anybody down in completing their taxes,” Miller told reporters Thursday. “People may find that they’ve got a discrepancy … and need some help.”

State officials brief reporters on required tax documents for Vermont Health Connect customers.

State officials brief reporters on required tax documents for Vermont Health Connect customers.

Customers could also be required to pay back subsidies if their incomes changed during 2014, or could receive payments from the federal government, depending on whether their income went up or down.

Miller said 36 percent of the 37,239 Vermonters on the exchange had no federal subsidy. Ten percent of customers had only a federal subsidy, and 54 percent received a federal subsidy as well as additional premium assistance from the state.

Everyone who receives a 1095-A form in the mail will need to fill out IRS Form 8962. The 1095-A form includes the financial information needed to do so. Even those that didn’t receive tax credits as part of their coverage must complete the form if they purchased a bronze, silver, gold or platinum plan on the exchange, according to officials.

Customers with questions will see a “substantially faster” connection to the VHC call center than the IRS. Miller said the IRS “received inadequate funding to fully staff its’ call center” and wait times of at least 20 minutes are expected.

“That will be a bigger challenge for folks if they need to call the IRS help center,” he said.

Tax preparation software and accountants and tax preparers should be prepared to help complete required tax forms related to health care.

“Those people have been prepared and folks should expect a relatively smooth experience,” Miller said. “My hunch is, while this seems very new and very complicated, for the majority of people as they go through their taxes, it will be smooth.”

State officials said whether or not customers will owe money back for subsidies received or receive subsidies after-the-fact depends on how close their actual income was compared to what they estimated. That information is unclear to the state until forms are completed and filed.

“No way of knowing. This is the first year its’ been done. It’s hard to know what happens to people’s income over the course of a year. You would tend to assume, that if people based their financial information on their income from last year, most people would have seen a slight increase in their income,” Miller said. “It depends on what they estimated.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Labor board nixes double pay for state employee Irene work

File photo Gov. Peter Shumlin in a press conference in the days following Tropical Storm Irene.

File photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin and state officials in a press conference in the days following Tropical Storm Irene.

MONTPELIER — The 63 state employees who had sought double pay for their work in the weeks after Tropical Storm Irene have been denied by the Vermont Labor Relations Board, which issued a ruling Monday lamenting the fact that the grievance was even filed.

The Aug. 28, 2011, flood displaced more than 1,500 employees from the state office complex in Waterbury, forcing many to work from off-site locations until the state could secure office space elsewhere. While most employees performed their jobs without complaint, more than 60 claimed that “emergency closure” language in their union contract guaranteed them double pay for continuing to work while their usual workspace was uninhabitable.

On Monday, the labor board said the “emergency” closure applied only to the day of the floods, not the subsequent weeks during which employees had to work from their homes or on the road.

“(D)ouble pay for work performed is required if there is a complete closing for emergency reasons, and an emergency typically would be of a relatively short duration,” the board said.

The board said it doubted that the drafters of the collective bargaining agreement ever contemplated that “double pay for work performed for a complete closing for emergency reasons could extend for the lengthy period of time.” And a ruling that it could, the board said, “would hinder the ability of State departments and agencies to carry out (their) mission to serve the public without an excessive drain on State funds.”

For the full story, click here to go to the Times Argus.

Irene-prompted reforms make positive changes in mental health care

MONTPELIER — Before he turned even 20, Ivan Deutsch had been through 20 foster families, 15 visits to the psych ward, and more run-ins with police than he cares to remember.
For his entire teenage life, Deutsch suffered the slings of a mental illness that robbed him of a normal childhood. Thanks to a newly sprouted eight-bed residential treatment facility in Westminster, however, Deutsch said the future has finally started to look promising.
“If they hadn’t stuck with me like they had, I wouldn’t be here right now talking to you,” Deutsch told a panel of lawmakers Thursday. “I thought I was always going to be on the borderline of not living. But thanks to Hilltop, I made it.”
Amid the persistent turmoil of a mental health system under siege, Ivan Deutsch, and the Hilltop Recovery Residence that helped save him, offer at least a glimmer of hope for the reformation of a mental health system plunged into crisis by Tropical Storm Irene.
Nearly two years have passed since the historic floods inundated the state’s 52-bed psychiatric hospital, crippling the state’s ability to care for its most acutely ill residents. Vermonters experiencing psychotic breaks saw their wait times in emergency rooms spike to all-time highs in May, and Gov. Peter Shumlin himself has described the lack of secure, in-patient hospital beds as a disaster waiting to happen. Continue reading

Vilaseca to head newly minted Agency of Education

Last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin won legislation to endow his office will increased power over public education. On Thursday, he announced the appointment of the man he says will help him exert it.

Armando Vilaseca has been named to serve as Vermont’s first-ever secretary of education, a cabinet-level post whose allegiance to the governor will lend the executive branch unprecedented influence over education policy in the state.

Until now, the commissioner of education has answered to the nine-member State Board of Education, a century-old arrangement conceived to help insulate public education from the ideological bent of politicians.

Shumlin though convinced lawmakers last year that the system had prevented the state’s top elected officeholder from enacting needed reforms in one of government’s central roles.

Vilaseca has served as commissioner of education for the last four years and was among the three candidates nominated for the secretary’s post by the State Board of Education.

Shumlin said otday that in Vilaseca, he’s found a steady hand to lead the transition.

“I was lucky to have three strong candidates for the secretary’s post, but with my expansive education agenda, making a change in leadership right now does not make sense and I have confidence Armando is the right person to be sure we don’t miss a beat in the coming months,” Shumlin said.

Asked during a press conference what exactly his “expansive” agenda contains, Shumlin said he wanted to save details for a big reveal in his State of the State address next week.

Vilaseca headlined a slew of executive-branch job announcements Thursday, including the appointment of former House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche to serve as deputy secretary of commerce and community development.

Leriche is currently working under contract for Green Mountain Power.

Shumlin said more changes are in store for an Agency of Commerce to which he has decided to enact structural changes.

Under former Gov. James Douglas, the Department of Economic Development was folded into commerce. Shumlin said economic development demands fulltime focus, and that he is reestablishing the department so that he can appoint a dedicated commissioner.

The search for that position is underway.

Among the other executive staff changes:

  • Irene Recovery Officer Sue Minter will return to her role as deputy secretary of transportation; her deputy, Dave Rapaport, will become the new Irene Czar
  • Susan Allen, who in her first-term role as “special assistant to the governor” served as spokeswoman and communications chief, will take on the deputy chief of staff post being vacated by outgoing Alex MacLean. Allen, formerly managing editor of the Times Argus, will continue to handle public and press relations
  • Former Lamoille County Sen. Susan Bartlett, who spent the first term as a special assistant to the governor, will take a new job in the Agency of Human resources, where she will coordinate a range of projects for the administration
  • A former representative from Johnson, Floyd Nease – he served as House Majority Leader prior to Leriche – will serve as director of systems integration at the Agency of Human Services. Shumlin said Nease has been asked to streamline the delivery of services to vulnerable families

Shumlin invites town clerks to Irene event, on primary day

When Gov. Peter Shumlin says everybody is invited to tomorrow’s Irene commemoration in Randolph, he means everyone.

Shumlin last Thursday issued a personal email invitation to every state employee, as well as every town clerk inVermont.

The “We Are Vermont Strong Commemorative Gathering,” at the Chandler Centerfor the Performing Arts in Randolph, will feature music, video, art and lots of food. The concert hall opens at 6:30 p.m.

Town clerks might have a bit of a scheduling conflict. Tuesday is primary day and, in their roles as top local elections officials, clerks will likely have their hands full until 7 p.m., the statutorily mandated closing time for polling stations. Then they’ll have to count all the ballots.

Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said the governor understands not every clerk will be able to make it. But she said he wants them to know how much their hard work over the past year has been appreciated, and that he’d love for them to be a part of the commemoration.

As for state employees, she said no one is required to attend. If they want to leave work early to go, she said, it’ll have to be on their own time, not the state’s.

Here’s the invite:

 

Dear ,

 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, I want to thank you for your hard work and dedication helping your community and neighbors recover from the devastation left in the storm’s wake. Although we still have a long way to go to ensure that all our fellow Vermonters get back on their feet, we won’t stop until the job is done.

 

I hope you will be able to join me for the We Are Vermont Strong Commemorative Gathering on Aug. 28 at theChandlerCenterfor the Performing Arts inRandolph. There will be music, video and art displays, an ice cream social sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, food vendors – American Flatbread, Ana’s Mexican Loncheria, VT Maple BBQ — and more. The art gallery and ice cream social begin at4 p.m., and the concert hall will open at6:30 p.m.for seating.

 

In addition, I hope you will encourage your community to participate in a statewide bell-ringing for thirty seconds at 7:00 p.m.on Aug. 28. As you know, many local communities and recovery groups are also planning Irene anniversary events. For a listing of many of those events, visit www.vtstrong.vermont.gov.

 

I am proud of this great state and the Vermont spirit that you demonstrate every day.

 

Sincerely,

 

Peter Shumlin

Report on state offices to be unveiled in Friday meeting

A long-awaited report by the architectural firm Freeman French Freeman will lay out three options for how the state could replace the Waterbury state office complex that was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene.

The Shumlin administration plans to unveil the Freeman French Freeman report this Friday during a meeting that will include Waterbury officials on the fourth floor of the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. Continue reading

Six lawmakers to settle long-running debate over mental health

Three lawmakers from the House and three from the Senate will sit across the table from each other and attempt to resolve a mental health debate that has thus far split the two chambers.

Leaders in the House and Senate today named their conferees. Representing the House: Alice Emmons (Democratic chairwoman of the institutions), Anne Pugh (Democratic chairwoman of human services), and Sandy Haas (Prog/Dem vice-chairwoman of human services). Continue reading

Controversy brews over mental health as Senate preps for vote

Senate lawmakers this morning are frenetically preparing for a floor session this afternoon during which leaders aim to pass out, at long last, the mental-health bill that Gov. Peter Shumlin says will alleviate the “crisis” unfolding in hospitals across Vermont.

It’s been a long road for the legislation, which lays out a replacement plan for the 54-bed psychiatric hospital flooded out in Tropical Storm Irene. Seven weeks of legislative debate have done little to quell dissent over the administration’s plan. And a spate of amendments on the Senate calendar today spotlights the major areas of disagreement.

The size of the replacement hospital remains the biggest sticking point. Shumlin has demanded a bill that calls for a facility, to be located somewhere in central Vermont, with no greater than 16 beds. Exceeding that number, Shumlin says, will cost taxpayers nearly $10 million in foregone federal revenue annually. That’s because new rules in place at the Center for Medicaid and State Operations, he says, prohibit federal Medicaid matches for facilities with greater than 16 beds. Continue reading

Buy a “Vermont Stong” license plate. And a car, while you’re at it.

You’ve got to hand it to the marketing geniuses at Heritage Ford, who just managed to turn an Irene-related Statehouse press conference into a commercial for the South Burlington car dealership.

The Ford, Toyota and Scion dealer has launched a marketing campaign featuring comedian/actor Rusty DeWees. DeWees, members of the “H-Team” in tow, showed up at the Cedar Creek room for an 11:30 a.m. bill signing, where the Shumlin administration and lawmakers celebrated the passage of a law creating the “Vermont Strong” license plates.  Continue reading

Irene, jobs will headline State of State

The governor’s State of the State address, scheduled to get underway about 90 minutes from now, will focus largely on “Irene, jobs, and how those things are connected.”

That’s according to Chief of Staff Bill Lofy, who said the speech clocks in at 28 minutes, give or take.

Peter Shumlin’s inaugural State of the State will no doubt be a feel-good affair, with nods to the heroes of Tropical Storm Irene and odes to Vermont Exceptionalism. About midway through the speech, he’ll unveil the “Vermont Strong” license plate, a money-raising initiative to support survivors of the floods.

Aides to the governor are setting up a pair of sleek teleprompters right now. Last year, the devices failed to work in the early going, but finally activated about three minutes in. Hell was paid. It won’t happen again.

We’re unlikely to hear anything too controversial today. Next week though, when the governor drops his budget proposal on lawmakers, the partisan sparks will fly.

Dollar bills falling like snowflakes; $15M headed to Vt. for road repairs

Vermont's congressional delegation announced $15 million in emergency aid for the Green Mountain State…. 

From the announcement:

BURLINGTON, Vt., Nov. 22 – The U.S. Department of Transportation will release $15 million in emergency funds to help Vermont rebuild and repair roads and bridges destroyed or damaged by floods, Vermont’s congressional delegation announced today.

The Federal Highway Administration emergency grant includes $14 million for repairing damage caused last August by Tropical Storm Irene, according to Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Another $1 million will help cover repair costs for highways and bridges washed out during heavy spring flooding.

The funding was released less than a week after Congress approved and President Barack Obama signed legislation funding emergency relief for Vermont and other states recovering from natural disasters like Tropical Storm Irene.

State to aid cash-strapped towns

MONTPELIER – The town of Halifax has 300 to 400 year-round residents. Its annual budget is $800,000. And the small southern Vermont hamlet is facing an estimated $7 million in infrastructure repairs as a result of Tropical Storm Irene.

For Halifax – and numerous other towns in a similar situation – the massive effort to rebuild roads has strained municipal coffers as federal aid is slow to come from Washington, D.C.

But top officials in state government on Tuesday outlined steps they are taking to ease the cash-flow problems that have arisen for some hard-hit towns as a result of the rebuilding effort.

The state plans to disburse $6.4 million in road funds and $125 million in education money earlier than it normally would. Flood-damaged towns that are required to send education money to the state by a Dec. 1 deadline also will not penalized.

The new deadline for education fund payments to the state is Feb. 28 for towns that suffered extensive damage.

U.S. Senate okays Irene help for Vermont

The U.S. Senate just passed a transportation bill that, if enacted into law, would solve some of the state’s chief post-Irene fiscal dilemmas. The bill to repair damage to the state system alone could hit $250 million. That’s down drastically from the $620 million officials initially projected, but still a significant chunk of money in a state where yearly transportation spending totals just more than $500 million.

If approved, the Senate transportation bill would see the feds cover 80 percent of all Irene-related repairs above $100 million (the federal government, by statute, is already responsible for the first $100 million).

The bill additionally waives the 180-day time limit usually imposed on federally funded emergency repairs. In Vermont, where things like ice and snow tend to complicate the road work season, the six-month time limit could prove problematic.

Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders are leading the charge on Vermont’s behalf, though it’s still unclear whether the proposed legislation will make it through the U.S. House. The emergency funding provisions, which would also help other Northeast states pummeled by Irene, would require an additional $1.9 billion in transportation funding.

Vt. Disaster Relief Fund hits $1.7M; new ad campaign planned

MONTPELIER – Money keeps coming into the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund – some of it on roller skates, according to Chris Graff, a board member at the new nonprofit that manages the fund.

The Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, one of the largest pots of money devoted to flood recovery, continues to compile cash; it had $1.3 million about five weeks ago and now has $1.7 million, said Graff.

The most recent large donation, which was for $120,000, came from the Argosy Foundation, said Graff.

But smaller donations from fundraisers at City Market in Burlington, a community theater, and even a roller derby “bout” have also helped add to the fund, said Graff.

“It is remarkable the extent and breadth of the donations that are coming in,” said Graff.

But the Vermont Long Term Disaster Recovery Group, which manages the disaster relief fund, also plans to unroll an advertising campaign in the coming weeks to keep the need for donations in the spotlight, said Graff.

“We've been talking to some large donors, but we plan to expand that and actually do a much more visible campaign to reach all Vermonters and make them understand that for many people Tropical Storm Irene may be in the rearview mirror, but it's not for all flood victims, and the unmet needs are going to be huge,” said Graff.

— Thatcher Moats