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Economic relief for county within reach

House and Senate give the nod to $225,000 in the state budget

BRATTLEBORO—Funds earmarked for economic relief for Windham County passed one more Montpelier hurdle this week, with both the House and the Senate approving $225,000 in the state budget.

The amendments include funding for a Windham County/Tropical Storm Irene Relief Initiative, a higher education collaborative, and for phase two of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS).

At press time, the legislation is in conference committee, which reconciles the differences from the separate House and Senate bills into the final legislation that both chambers will vote up or down.

The request will come through amendments to the Appropriations Bill (also called “The Big Bill”) and the Capital Bill sponsored by members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs (SEHGA).

Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, chairs that committee, and Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, serves as committee clerk.

According to Galbraith, the amendments passed both the House and Senate. He described the Legislature’s favorable votes as “significant.”

Although it is unusual for the appropriations bill to direct specific counties to receive funding, Illuzzi said that given Irene’s effects on Windham County, it seemed logical to target a specific region.

Public testimony before SEHGA in Brattleboro during a special hearing on March 30 spurred the Senate committee’s members to action.

During the five-hour hearing, approximately 20 individuals and representatives of organizations testified about the county’s lagging economy and fiscal aid deadlines after Irene.

The committee also heard about new development projects like Sustainable Valley Group’s Green Island Project in Bellows Falls.

Committee member Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, also took testimony with Illuzzi and Galbraith. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, although not a member of the committee, joined her fellow senators during the hearing.

Illuzzi, aware that Windham County residents are only half-joking when they say Montpelier thinks they live in Massachusetts, said about SEHGA’s response, “I didn’t want people who’ve felt excluded to feel they’d wasted their time.”

Galbraith said the people who testified before SEHGA helped put more focus on Windham County.

In previous interviews, Galbraith said he wanted the legislature to pay more attention to Windham County, attention that helps bring state and federal resources to the table.

“The projects flow from the attention,” he said.

The draft amendments underwent changes before the Senate’s April 28 vote. Early drafts detailed how much money flowed to which organizations for specific projects. The approved version, however, takes a broader scope.

The pot of money also shrank from a proposed $393,000.

Although the Legislature approved less than what the amendments called for, Illuzzi said the approved versions still reflect the original goals and themes.

Illuzzi, in collaboration with Galbraith, sponsored two other amendments in response to the March 30 hearing.

The first calls for conducting a feasibility study on including commercial properties in the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program. The second would allow farmers to grow industrial hemp.

The current PACE program allows homeowners to pay for improvements to their homes’ energy efficiency — like weatherization or adding solar — through an assessment on property taxes.

Illuzzi’s proposed change to the state’s hemp bill removes a condition on the current state statute.

Relief for Windham County

After Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont last August, the state worked to receive federal relief funds by asking President Barack Obama to declare the state a disaster area.

Although Windham County did receive a disaster designation for individuals to seek assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the county as a whole did not receive a disaster designation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The lack of this designation has limited the county’s access to other relief aid, a point Illuzzi and Galbraith both made during Senate floor debates.

The Windham County initiative instructs the state Secretary of Administration and Secretary of Commerce and Community Development to work with the county as it rebuilds from Irene and on other economic development projects.

Instructions in the initiative amendment include:

• Working to include Windham County in HUD’s targeted area for the pending community development block grant disaster recovery allocated to Vermont.

• Holding at least one public hearing in the county to discuss unmet housing, economic recovery, and infrastructure needs.

• Ensuring senior-level state agency participation with the SeVEDS board.

• Creating a “single point of contact,” a resource for affected communities looking for information on tax credits and funding for recovery.

• Coordinating with FEMA and state agencies to address the county’s housing needs. This provision includes affordable housing that was lost or damaged at Melrose Terrace and the Tri-Park Mobile Home Park.

• Working with the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce and the businesses along the Route 30 corridor with tourism and marketing promotion.

• Working with the Sustainable Valley Group in Bellows Falls.

More money for more aid

The proposed amendments also instruct the Secretaries of Administration and Commerce and Community Development to find $100,000 to provide grants to Windham County.

The grants would go toward communities or organizations involved in Tropical Storm Irene recovery. The money could also go toward matching funds for grants from the U.S. Economic Development Administration for Irene-related recovery projects.

Regarding the public hearing on unmet housing, economic recovery, and infrastructure needs, the amendment also reads, “Groups and organizations that have not been directly involved with the southeastern Vermont economic development strategy (SeVEDS) shall be included and allocated adequate presentation time.”

Illuzzi said he heard from multiple people who felt excluded from the SeVEDS process. The committee wanted to ensure that economic development and Irene recovery remain inclusive.

Also pending in the house is an Illuzzi/Galbraith-sponsored bill to help residents and owners of mobile homes receive the same treatment and fairness as owners of wood-frame homes.

In a previous interview, Galbraith said that mobile homes, including cooperatives like Tri-Park, are treated differently from traditional housing. This results in mobile home owners receiving less aid post-Irene.

For example, banks tend to consider wood-frame homes safer investments, so they give their buyers lower interest rates. For financing purposes, these homes are considered appreciating assets, while mobile homes are considered as depreciating assets. Also, it is not uncommon for mobile-home owners not to own the land the home sits on.

According to Galbraith, Irene hit mobile-home residents harder per capita than the storm did other homeowners because most mobile-home parks are situated in floodplains.

“There are many whammies aimed at them [mobile home owners],” he said.

Aiming higher

Another economic development issue, a stronger higher education presence in Brattleboro, was also a topic of discussion at the March 30 hearing.

In response, Illuzzi and Galbraith also sponsored an amendment to include a feasibility study for a higher-education collaborative in Brattleboro.

If feasible, the collaborative will develop a curriculum “to maximize resources for students and benefits to the region, including the development of a high-tech workforce.”

The initiative also proposes a public technology center in downtown Brattleboro.

According to Illuzzi, the collaborative could be a public/private venture between organizations such as Community College of Vermont, Landmark College, Marlboro College, Union Institute, World Learning, and the Vermont State College system.

Marlboro President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, credited with proposing the idea at the March hearing, was unavailable for comment at press time.

The senators added a separate plan to create a joint tech center and downtown campus in Brattleboro for the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

This amendment, included in the Capital Bill, passed both houses.

Industrial hemp

At the March 30 hearing, Tom Simon and Emily Peyton, representatives of Hempfully Green!, a construction company promoting the use of a mixture of industrial hemp and lime, testified on the conundrum facing industrial hemp farmers in Vermont.

The federal government, while allowing companies to use hemp as a product ingredient, has outlawed the cultivation of industrial hemp even though the plant does not provide the high of its horticultural relative, marijuana.

Companies can use imported hemp in the United States, Simon and Peyton said, but American farmers cannot grow it.

In Illuzzi’s opinion, by banning American farmers from growing hemp, the feds help “create foreign countries’ economies and deny our own citizens’ economies.”

Vermont had a statute on the books allowing the cultivation of industrial hemp effective after the federal government approves the plant’s cultivation.

Illuzzi sponsored an amendment, which the Senate approved on April 28, to repeal the timestamp on Vermont’s hemp cultivation statute.

The senator said that the next step for Vermont hemp farmers is to obtain a state-sponsored permit to grow hemp.

“Another approach would be [for the farmer] to bring a court action against the DEA, arguing that there is no rational basis to lump in industrial hemp with its more controversial cousin, marijuana, and that doing so denies a state permit holder to earn a living,” he wrote in an email.

“I suspect the cotton or some other lobby has something to do with lumping industrial hemp in with marijuana because, in fact, there is no rational basis for linking the two together.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #150 (Wednesday, May 2, 2012).

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