Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, center, answers questions following a ceremony announcing funding for the reconstruction of the Waterbury office complex on Thursday. Flanking Fugate are Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding, left, and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
WATERBURY — Federal assistance and insurance money will cover about half of the $225 million price tag on the rebuilding and renovation of government offices washed out two years ago by Tropical Storm Irene.
At an hour long press conference Thursday outside the empty brick buildings of the Waterbury office complex, federal, state and local officials, including Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate, announced the final piece in a funding puzzle two years in the making.
The federal government will contribute slightly more than $30 million for a “greener, cleaner” state office facility located on the same Waterbury parcel inundated by the Winooski River in 2011. Combined with about $18 million in insurance money, the state will get about $50 million of the $125 million it will cost to rebuild in Waterbury.
“The outcome of this will be not only better service, more efficiency, better energy savings, but also huge savings for Vermonters,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said.
The assistance announced Thursday comes on top of the $30 million already secured in FEMA and insurance money for the construction of the new Vermont State Hospital in Berlin, as well as an additional $36 million in assistance to cover costs associated with temporary relocation, moving costs and cleanup.
All told, Vermont will spend about $225 million to recreate improved versions of the government functions destroyed in Irene; insurance and FEMA will provide about $113 million in funding. The final figure includes the $9 million Vermont spent to retrofit the National Life building in Montpelier as the new home of the Agency of Natural Resources.
“We know that it’s been a long wait … There were times when we were banging our heads against the wall collectively trying to figure out how we were going to get here,” Shumlin said. “But the result is that we’re going to end up in this state solving problems that have evaded governors for many years.”
Enduring that long wait, state and federal officials said, was worth it in the end, as legislation passed by Congress in the wake of Superstorm Sandy would improve the state’s standing considerably. FEMA was formerly authorized to disburse money only to efforts geared at returning destroyed or damaged buildings to their pre-disaster conditions.
Provisions in the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, according to Fugate, gave the federal agency latitude to award funds to “build back better.”
“We got the legislation that allows FEMA to be a better partner so that we can support governors, support local communities, and build back not just what was, but build back better,” Fugate said. “We shouldn’t be penalizing a state that says we want to build back differently … They need to build back for the future, and we have a responsibility to support that.”
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said that without the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, Vermont likely would have missed out on $25 million, much of which will now go toward the new construction of an 86,000 square-foot office complex.
Spaulding said all work on the office complex necessarily ground to a halt over the summer construction season as the state awaited the outcome of the congressional debate over Sandy legislation.
“The advice we were getting is, ‘You’re better off waiting. The new Sandy rules … will only apply where there’s a declared disaster and construction hasn’t started,’” Spaulding said. “That patience has paid off.”
Funding secured, Vermont will now begin demolishing 22 structures on the Waterbury parcel — a process that got under way ceremonially Thursday when a bulldozer peeled a layer of brick from the exterior of one of the buildings. Thirteen historic brick buildings in the core of the campus will be refurbished and become part of the new office space.
Spaulding and Shumlin said lawmakers have already appropriated nearly all the $112 million for which the state is on the hook, mainly via a two-year capital bill passed in 2012. Spaulding said the state won’t need the $9.8 million that hasn’t yet been allocated until fiscal year 2016, and that there will be plenty of room in the capital bill by that time to cover the costs.
“We can do all of this easily with the existing (bonding) process, not raising taxes,” Spaulding said. “The funding is in place to allow all of these projects to move forward.”
The announcement brings long-term economic stability to the small Waterbury downtown that has hosted the state government offices for decades.
Shumlin’s rhetoric in late 2011 and early 2012 had town leaders here on edge, as the Democratic governor considered the merits of rebuilding in another location in central Vermont. Waterbury even hired a prominent Montpelier lobbying firm — a move for which Shumlin chastised the municipal leaders — to advocate on its behalf in Montpelier.
The ribbon-cutting on the new complex won’t come until late 2015. About 1,350 state employees worked out of the Waterbury complex before Irene. When the new facility is complete, about 1,200 will return, including the 300 workers from the Department of Public Safety who never left.
While the new offices will be located on the same piece of land that the Winooski River overtook in 2011, site work and structural features will, according to Fugate, spare the complex damage in the next 100-year flood.
Fugate said allowing FEMA funding to be used for those kinds of resiliency projects will yield returns in the future.
“There’s still people debating climate change. We’re not debating it anymore, we’ve really got to start talking differently,” Fugate said, paraphrasing President Barack Obama’s disaster-relief strategy. “People can talk about change, we’ve got to talk about adaptation. We can’t just build back to what was, we have to build for our future.”
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