Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Sen. Randy Brock stands outside the former Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury on Wednesday to question how the Shumlin administration has handled potential FEMA funding for the flood-damaged facility.
MONTPELIER — Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock looked to turn bad news out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency into a political liability for his Democratic opponent Wednesday.
Outside the Waterbury state office complex flooded during Tropical Storm Irene, Brock blamed Gov. Peter Shumlin for delivering false assurances to the Legislature earlier this year about the level of FEMA aid lawmakers could expect for their post-storm recovery plans.
Brock’s attacks come in the wake of a Statehouse hearing two weeks ago at which administration officials broke the news to legislators that Vermont may receive considerably less than the nearly $90 million it had been anticipating for the rebuild of both the Vermont State Hospital and Waterbury state offices.
“Never did they tell us before that this funding was in doubt,” Brock told a throng of reporters gathered for the press conference in the parking lot of the state’s now-vacant psychiatric hospital.
Brock said the episode is only the latest example of Shumlin peddling half-truths.
“Gov. Shumlin has established an all-too-familiar pattern of saying, ‘Everything will be OK. Trust me. The funding will be there,’” Brock said.
But many lawmakers briefed earlier this year by the administration on the reliability of FEMA funding estimates say they were never given iron-clad assurances by Shumlin or any of his top aides.
Rep. Ann Donahue, a Northfield Republican who spent as much time as any legislator on the hospital plans, said “we were not assured of certain numbers.”
She added, “That’s not the message I heard anyway.”
Other lawmakers voiced similar sentiments Wednesday.
Brock, however, maintained that rosy projections from the Shumlin administration compelled lawmakers to invest false confidence in the integrity of the FEMA estimates, on which they predicated the nearly $200 million recovery plan passed into law earlier this year.
A string of email correspondences between FEMA and the administration, Brock said, reveal that Shumlin’s executive team had scant reason to bank on those federal dollars.
The records surfaced as a result of a public-records request filed by the Vermont Press Bureau. The administration also provided the documents to Brock.
“The question is, what was the basis for that belief?” Brock said. “It’s not in the documents I’ve seen.”
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding dismissed Brock’s criticism as a political stunt and said the administration had been forthright with lawmakers about the uncertainty of its FEMA projections.
While he never had any “promises” from FEMA, Spaulding said, the feds provided advice and direction that would lead any reasonable person to believe they would pick up 90 percent of the $43 million state hospital replacement plan.
The plan, passed shortly after Town Meeting Day, replaces the 52-bed facility in Waterbury with a new 25-bed facility in Berlin and adds capacity at existing hospitals in Brattleboro and Rutland.
“Was I confident FEMA would participate substantially in the state hospital replacement plan? Yes, I was,” Spaulding said.
But at a June 28 meeting, Spaulding said, federal officials changed the ground rules on which Spaulding had based his optimism.
FEMA had previously said it would reimburse Vermont for its new hospital if the old one was “damaged,” Spaulding said, but a new cast of federal regulators said the relocation would be eligible only if the old hospital was “destroyed.”
Brock said the administration knew well before that June meeting that the funding was in jeopardy. As early as February, according to emails obtained in the records request, Spaulding had asked FEMA officials for at least a “conceptual OK” for the state’s hospital replacement plan.
A top FEMA official told Spaulding the agency “doesn’t have the legal authority to make a conceptual OK.”
“We can say that FEMA will participate, however to what extent is dependent on (federal regulations),” Nick Russo, associate director of FEMA’s New England division, wrote in an email.
Brock said those uncertainties were never relayed to legislators. He said such information may well have led lawmakers to rethink their support for a plan that relied so heavily on federal dollars, or at least to draft contingency plans in the event the money didn’t come through.
“Since January, FEMA has told the Shumlin administration that decisions about funding are still months away,” Brock said. “These warnings we’re not delivered to the Legislature. And the question is why.”
But Sen. Dick Mazza, a Grand Isle Democrat, said the administration was very clear about fuzziness in the federal funding picture.
“I never had the impression it was a done deal,” said Mazza, who, as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Institutions, was briefed extensively on the FEMA situation. “I knew there was a long process in determining the final outcome, and everyone I discussed it with, there was always the uncertainty.”
Mazza said neither the Legislature nor the administration could defer decisions pending greater clarity from FEMA.
“When you have a disaster, you have to move forward,” Mazza said. “Lives and livelihoods were at stake. We knew the money might not come through, but we knew we had to do something. Getting or not getting money from FEMA wasn’t going to change the fact that we had to do something.”
Sen. Joe Benning, a Caledonia County Republican and clerk on the Senate Committee on Institutions, said Wednesday he recalls things differently.
“I never questioned the money. … And from a legislative perspective, we were relying on statements from the administration,” Benning said.
Rep. Linda Myers, an Essex Republican and vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Institutions, said she felt like the $88.3 million in FEMA money earmarked for the state hospital and Waterbury office complex were pretty much in hand. But she said it was FEMA, not the Shumlin administration, that fueled her confidence.
“We were told, by FEMA, that the state hospital … was what they referred to as a ‘critical action,’ and that would be the most important consideration in terms of funding a new facility,” Myers said.
Shumlin fanned the political flames by suggesting last week that FEMA did in fact make promises to Vermont.
“The head person from FEMA made us all kinds of promises. We’ve got emails saying we’re going to get this.” Shumlin told the editorial board at the Rutland Herald and Times Argus on July 23.
“FEMA made us a promise to get us 90 percent funding on the state hospital … and to give us significant funding to rebuild the Waterbury complex,” he said. “That was the promise.”
It was Shumlin’s comments that day that led to the records request that ultimately proved no such promises were made.
Politics will now play out alongside policy, as administration officials and lawmakers ponder the ripple effect of the FEMA reductions, which could force revisions to the recovery plan.
Spaulding reiterated Wednesday that the state will proceed with its plan to overhaul the state’s mental health system regardless of whether FEMA comes through. If federal aid is diminished, he said, then Vermont will find the money elsewhere, likely through bonding in next year’s capital bill.
Existing plans for the Waterbury office complex, meanwhile, seem less certain.
The state has already postponed demolition of certain buildings as it awaits more reliable FEMA reimbursement estimates.
“How we reoccupy the state complex may change depending on the level of FEMA funding,” Spaulding said.
And while Spaulding has sought to comfort Waterbury officials unnerved by what the FEMA revelations might mean for the return of state employees to downtown Waterbury, his assurances have been qualified.
“I hate to sound like FEMA,” Spaulding said. “But at this time, we have no plans to change the number coming back.”
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