It could be three to four more weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency issues a decision on funding for the Waterbury State Office Complex and a replacement facility for the Vermont State Hospital.
Gov. Peter Shumlin told reporters Tuesday that the state and the agency are still negotiating. FEMA was expected to make a decision in mid-August.
Last month, administration officials told lawmakers that FEMA had reneged on funding for the facilities. Administration officials accused FEMA of having “walked away” from their commitments. Shumlin backed away from that assertion on Tuesday. Sue Minter, Shumlin’s “recovery czar,” was not present at the presser.
Jeb Spaulding, secretary of the Agency of Administration, has said the state could expect to receive between zero and $80 million in assistance.
The state’s recent setbacks with the agency hinged on federal language that governs FEMA funding. The state initially assumed that FEMA would provide up to 90 percent funding for renovations to “damaged” buildings, but federal regulations that define funding eligibility for public assistance for relocating structures uses the word “destroyed.”
Now, with federal help less certain, the state’s elaborate plan for renovations to the Waterbury State Office Complex are in jeopardy.
Shumlin told reporters today that Vermont has a normal relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and dealing with large government bureaucracies such as FEMA can be turbulent.
“I am proud of the relationship we’ve developed with FEMA,” he said. His remarks, he said, were informed by conversations with some of his counterparts across the country.
“There is not a governor in the country who will tell you that there aren’t good days with FEMA, that there aren’t bad days with FEMA, that there aren’t happy days with FEMA, that there aren’t sad days with FEMA, and we have to expect that we’re going to have the exact same experience here in the state of Vermont,” Shumlin said.
Initial reports were, it turns out, too good to be true.
Shumlin’s administration had a rude awakening last month in a meeting with FEMA officials in which the agency made clear that “destroyed,” not “damaged” was the key word.
Now, the state’s reconstruction officials are buckling down for extended work with FEMA – applying for federal assistance with projects and appealing when they feel funds were wrongly denied.
“We have to prepare for a long and sometimes bumpy, sometimes happy ride with FEMA,” Shumlin said. “It’s a big organization. They are doing the best that they can for the state of Vermont.”
Shumlin was complimentary of FEMA throughout his hour-long press conference Tuesday, though he didn’t condemn his administrations earlier negative remarks about the agency – they stemmed from “understandable frustration,” the governor said.
He admitted that his administration made some mistakes in dealing with FEMA, but, when Seven Days’ Paul Heintz asked for elaboration, Shumlin refused to say who made the errors or when.
“None of us will not make mistakes,” Shumlin said.
“What mistakes has your administration made?” Heintz returned.
Shumlin’s answer: “Oh, you know, I don’t think there’s any benefit in looking at who made mistakes when or where, and frankly, generally I think this process is going exactly is it should be expected, and it’s going very very well at the moment and it’s going to be a long process.”
Though FEMA’s help is now in doubt, Shumlin said Vermont was going to come back “better than the way Irene found us … no matter what” at least four times, calling himself a “broken record” on that point.
“We are going to get the resources we need from FEMA to implement the plans that we developed,” he said. “That’s my goal as governor. I believe we’ll succeed.”
In testimony to lawmakers, Spaulding said FEMA has “a higher level team here in Vermont” and he said the state is operating on the expectation that FEMA is here to help us, not wiggle out of its obligations”
If pushed, Spaulding said, FEMA could give the administration “a range of dollars” this week, but the administration, Spaulding said, is concerned “they would lowball it” in order to protect themselves in the event of an inspector general audit down the road.
“We’re still looking at what they (FEMA) can do to maximize funding,” Spaulding said. “It’s in our best interest to give them the time.”
Editor’s note: Andrew Nemethy contributed to this report. Spaulding’s testimony to the Legislature was added at 7:36 a.m. Aug. 14, 2012.