Some state employee commutes are about to get considerably longer.
Also growing longer is the tab Tropical Storm Irene racked up with the state when it staggered through Vermont, swamping the Waterbury State Office Complex as it flooded many communities in devastating fashion.
The cost just to “stabilize” and restore essential infrastructure — not to make the offices inhabitable — is estimated now at $17 million-$20 million, Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said Monday. Much of that is expected to be recovered from various sources, he said.
A total of 1,586 state employees had to be moved out of the sprawling red-brick complex, parts of which were originally built in 1890 as the Waterbury State Hospital. Severe flooding of the ground floor on Sunday, Aug. 28 wiped out all the infrastructure, including power, water, sewer and heat, along with state offices on that level.
The state is now finalizing efforts to relocate around 1,100 state workers into new leased space, said Tom Sandretto, deputy commissioner of Buildings and General Services for Vermont. Finding 220,000 to 250,000 square feet of office space and relocating that many people around the northern tier of the state has not been an easy task, said Sandretto, who has worked for the state for 40 years.
“Monumental would be a good word for it,” he said.
On Tuesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin will meet with the lawmakers who make up the Emergency Board. He is expected to ask for $5 million in appropriations to the state Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund, Spaulding said. The board can spend up to $25 million without approval from the Legislature. The money would be spent on a variety of post-Irene needs.
According to Spaulding, leases are in the works for several large spaces, among them the IBM facility in Essex Junction, Northern Power in Waitsfield, and Vermont Student Assistance Corp. in Winooski.
Leases are also in the works for 10 to 15 smaller spaces, Sandretto said.
The state looked at the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus in Montpelier, but the college’s facilities were not available for a long enough term, according to an official with the school.
Buildings and General Services Commissioner Michael Obuchowski said the state is still “fine-tuning” proposals but is aiming to try and line up all the relocations in the next two weeks. An effort is being made to house related departments together wherever possible, considering the space available.
“We’re attacking this in a methodical way,” he said.
Conor Casey, an official with the Vermont State Employees Association, said the state has the right to reassign employees within a 35-mile radius, so that would not appear to be an issue regarding the new worksites. He said the state and union officials are working in a “respectful, constructive way” to deal with the flooding aftermath.
Obuchowski said that some 200 state employees “self-placed” themselves in other work spaces; for example, by consolidating into vacant spaces at other state offices in the same agency or department.
Some departments will also soon be able to move back into Waterbury because their buildings were not impacted in a major way, such as Public Safety and the forensics lab, according to Sandretto.
The impact of the flooding from the nearby Winooski River primarily disrupted the work of two major state agencies housed at the complex, the Agency of Natural Resources and Human Services along with the Vermont State Hospital, as well as several smaller departments, such as Public Safety and Emergency Management, the Department of Agriculture lab workers, the state forensics lab, a Vermont State Colleges office, the governor’s highway safety program and some private businesses that rented space at the complex, Sandretto said.
Obuchowski said the state’s lease requirements were for at least six months to a year because of the uncertainty of the future of the state office complex.
Spaulding reiterated Monday that the money being poured into basic rehabilitation of the Waterbury office complex is simply to preserve the state’s options, and that the future use of the complex is not a given. The complex is located in a floodplain and the potential costs to renovate and restore the buildings for office use are unknown at this point.
Spaulding did not have the total current figure for how many of the state employees who worked at the complex have been able to return to work. All of those impacted are being paid while the state tries to find available space.
According to Spaulding, the state hopes much of the $17 million-$20 million expenditure at the complex will be reimbursed. The state is expecting around $7.5 million in insurance coverage, and FEMA monies may cover 75 percent of the rest of the damage. But due to accounting complexities, the actual reimbursement may end up being even higher, he said.
The initial effort to clean up, clean out and restore basic infrastructure at the office complex in Waterbury may take about two months, Obuchowski said.
“It’s an opportunity to buy some time to make the big decisions that have to be made,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9 a.m., Sept. 13, 2011.