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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Vermont borrows heavily to pay for Irene repairs

As state waits for FEMA funds, it issues nearly $500 million in municipal bonds

With reporting by Taylor Dobbs, Andrew Nemethy, and Anne Galloway of VTDigger.org.

—With an estimated bill of $733 million to repair or replace buildings and infrastructure damaged by Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont is now borrowing money at a faster pace than any other state in the country.According to a report last week by Bloomberg News, the state of Vermont and its cities and towns have sold $492 million of municipal bonds so far this year. That is up $99 million over the same period last year.Roads and infrastructure in 200 towns sustained hundreds of millions of dollars in damage when Tropical Storm Irene scoured central and southern Vermont on Aug. 28, 2011. The storm ruined 500 miles of roadway, totaled the Waterbury state office complex, damaged municipal buildings and destroyed hundreds of homes. Forty to 50 towns were severely damaged.“People think Irene was a year ago, and we should be done rebuilding,” Sue Minter, a former state lawmaker who was named Vermont’s Irene recovery officer in January, told Bloomberg News. “The story, though, when you look below the surface, is that there’s an ongoing recovery.”According to Bloomberg News, the state has been helped by historically low borrowing costs and its status as having the highest credit rating of all the New England states. Vermont has a top Aaa ranking from Moody’s Investors Service, and is rated one step lower by Standard & Poor’s, at AA .

FEMA fight continues

—There is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding reimbursement amounts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), particularly regarding damage at the Vermont State Hospital and the State Office Complex in Waterbury.Approximately 1,500 workers were displaced when Irene flooded the Waterbury State Office Complex..Shumlin administration officials say they know FEMA won’t fund a new building, but they are trying to persuade the agency to replace parts of the complex and to pay for floodproofing — and perhaps demolition of buildings that Department of Buildings and General Services officials say are beyond repair because of flood damage.The state is also looking for FEMA to significantly fund the cost of replacing the state hospital and renovations for psychiatric units at Brattleboro Retreat and Rutland Regional Medical Center.FEMA has agreed to give the state a 90-percent match for projects that qualify for public assistance. Vermont has received more than $100 million in public assistance for other projects so far.In late spring, after vigorous lobbying by Vermont’s Congressional delegation, FEMA said it would boost the reimbursement match rate for public assistance from the standard rate of 75 percent federal/25 percent state and local to 90 percent federal/10 percent state and local.The state and municipalities then share the match cost equally.However, FEMA has balked at applying the 90 percent reimbursement standard to the damage to the Waterbury complex.Last month, the Shumlin administration found out in a meeting with FEMA officials in which the agency made clear that “destroyed,” not “damaged,” was the key word.As a result, Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, has said the state could expect to receive between zero and $80 million in assistance for the Waterbury repairs.Now, the state’s reconstruction officials are buckling down for extended work with FEMA — applying for federal assistance with projects and appealing when they believe that funds were wrongly denied.“We have to prepare for a long and sometimes bumpy, sometimes happy ride with FEMA,” Shumlin said at a news conference last week. “It’s a big organization. They are doing the best that they can for the state of Vermont.”

The paper chase

—State and local officials have been restoring roads and infrastructure with the expectation that FEMA will reimburse much of the cost.All along, state officials had hoped the federal government would give the state extraordinary relief; the expectation was that Vermont would exceed the $127 per person, or $80 million, damage threshold and would qualify for the higher public assistance match rate.Public assistance funding is used to pay for the restoration of local roads, culverts, bridges and infrastructure, such as schools, water systems, and municipal buildings.All this funding, however, is contingent on meeting the federal reporting requirements. According to Minter, towns have submitted 3,000 worksheets, all of which are undergoing careful review by the regional FEMA office.Any project that costs more than $1 million gets another level of review and scrutiny. All of the money goes to the state, which in turn reimburses towns.FEMA has paid $22 million to Vermonters for individual assistance for households and businesses damaged by Irene. The federal government will give the state about $98 million for state and local highway repairs.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #166 (Wednesday, August 22, 2012).

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