MONTPELIER — Three months after offices in the Waterbury state complex were flooded and closed by tropical storm Irene, the state is nearing the end of a massive employee relocation effort.
Around 100 state employees are awaiting an office location, and leases for contracted space for another 126 were signed Tuesday, said Buildings and General Services Deputy Commissioner Tom Sandretto.
Waterbury complex stabilization costs total $17.6 million, so far
WATERBURY — Considerable work remains to be done to restore the basic infrastructure at the 700,000-square-foot Waterbury state office complex after flooding three months ago.
But substantial progress has been made on the stabilization effort that will cost $20million to $25 million, according to Tom Sandretto, deputy commissioner of Buildings and General Services.
Sandretto said cleaning up and restoring basic services to the complex, which was flooded by the Winooski River on Aug. 28 in tropical storm Irene, has proved to be a “huge job… it’s gigantic.”
A total of 1,496 employees worked at Waterbury when Irene hit on Aug. 28. Sandretto said the newest leases include four buildings with 30,700 square feet, the largest housing 91 employees of the Natural Resources Agency at Northern Power in Fayston. Those workers have already been in the space for just over a week.
The state is in the process of arranging a lease for 70 more employees in central Vermont at a location he declined to name because negotiations are ongoing.
Sandretto said when that contract is finalized, the state will be down to only 25 remaining office-less workers of the 1,496 employees who were displaced by Irene. However, some employees report they still remain working at home because their assigned office space is not ready.
The two largest agencies at the Waterbury Complex, Human Services and Natural Resources, now have departments and employees scattered around the state under the emergency relocations.
Human Services employees primarily ended up at IBM offices in Essex Junction and a half dozen properties in Williston. In all, 945 workers had to be relocated.
Natural Resources departments that comprised some 355 employees are spread more widely among offices in Fayston (Northern Power), Montpelier, Graniteville (Rock of Ages) and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation offices in Winooski.
Figures from the legislative Joint Fiscal Office on displaced Waterbury workers show 586 ended up in Chittenden County, 228 in the Montpelier/Barre/Berlin area, and 110 in Fayston. The rest are scattered in smaller office spaces from Capitol Plaza in Montpelier to the former Vermont Lottery Commission offices in South Barre.
Approximately 153 employees are re-situated in Waterbury in offices that were only temporarily affected by the flooding, primarily workers in public safety and the forensics lab, according to data from the Joint Fiscal Office.
Some were also relocated into vacant space in state buildings, such as Redstone in Montpelier, which now houses the Vermont State Hospital administration staff. The JFO data lists 195 state hospital employees who are continuing to work at various locations around the state with the closure of the mental health facility after Irene. The financial hit to the state’s budget for finding replacement offices while the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin mulls what to do with the 700,000-square-foot Waterbury state office complex is substantial. The latest leasing document lists 20 locations with an annual cost of about $3.2 million.
Shumlin administration officials have said state employees may be dislocated for a considerable time while the state and lawmakers debate whether to restore the Waterbury complex or find alternative sites for state employees as a permanent solution.
The cost for the leases varies considerably from $12 to $20 a square foot. The state’s largest lease, 40,865 square feet with IBM, is in the middle of the range at $17.50 per square foot and will cost just under $60,000 a month. The VSAC offices in Winooski are $16 a square foot and are costing $34,667 a month.
Researching, leasing, outfitting and organizing offices for the dispersal of Waterbury employees has been a monumental task, Sandretto said. One of the main impediments has been arranging communications such as phone systems and broadband connections, which can be time-consuming and complex, he said.
Conor Casey of the Vermont State Employees Association said the main concern he has heard from state workers displaced from Waterbury is that many are facing much longer commutes to work.
“It’s a real difference for a lot of people,” he said, noting that when winter snows fall, the situation is going to be even harder.
A Joint Fiscal Office map showing the home location of state workers employed at the Waterbury complex indicates that a substantial number lived along the I-89 corridor north up to Burlington. Aside from a large grouping who lived around Waterbury, the other major source for workers was to the southeast around Montpelier, Barre, Williamstown and Northfield.
State officials and lawmakers at recent hearings have all indicated a preference for keeping employees in the central Vermont area near the state capital of Montpelier. Agency officials have also testified that keeping agency staff together — the term they use is co-location — is a top priority for any proposals for new offices or a reconstruction at the Waterbury complex.