Hoffer proposes $488,000 addition to auditor’s office

The state auditor is asking for the Legislature to approve a $488,000 addition to his office on State Street.

Doug Hoffer says that now that his office is fully staffed — he has 15 full-time workers in his employ — the 1,740 square foot building is no longer big enough. One employee is working in a hallway; another is housed in a building next door and the conference room has been partitioned into two offices.

The auditor's office is at 132 State Street in Montpelier. Auditor's office photo

The auditor’s office is at 132 State Street in Montpelier. Auditor’s office photo

The 1,200-square-foot, two-story addition is a “bare bones” project, Hoffer says. The addition would include new office space, a garage, a new staircase, mechanical improvements, a small porch and an accessibility ramp. Renovations to the historic building are not part of the plan. The cost would be roughly $400 a square foot.

Hoffer is asking lawmakers for a $20,000 feasibility study this year to prepare for the addition.

“This was entirely driven by my observation that professional staff were working in less than optimal office space,” Hoffer told lawmakers on Thursday.

The auditor’s proposal — complete with floor plan, elevations and construction estimates — was greeted with a less than enthusiastic response from the House Corrections and Institutions Committee. The project is not on the committee’s 10-year must-build list, and the state is already in the middle of three big-ticket construction projects — the Waterbury State Office Complex, the Health Lab and the Vermont Psychiatric Care Center.

Rep. Alice Emmons gently suggested that perhaps the auditor could move to an already open space in the capital complex in Montpelier.

Hoffer bristled at the idea. “I don’t want to be blended, spindled, folded in with other offices — we need to remain independent,” he said to the committee.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said the auditor could trade spaces with the Vermont Commission on Women and military affairs, located three doors down. “We’re having a hard time spending that much money,” she explained.

“We’re not saying we’re going to meld you in with executive branch,” Emmons said. “We’re looking at other buildings that are out there that may be more suitable for your needs instead of investing money in this building that may be suitable for someone else’s needs. That’s an option we need to look at first.”

Michael Obuchowski, the commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services, told lawmakers the project “isn’t a slam dunk right now.” He is now reviewing the list for fiscal year 2016 projects, and he says “very frankly” the project needs are “scary.” The fiscal year 2015 capital bill is roughly $180 million, according to a spreadsheet from the Joint Fiscal Office, and it includes expenditures on the Waterbury State Office Complex. Next year’s capital budget could be $134 million, Obuchowski said.

Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Florence, said Hoffer needed to get the approval of the capital commission for the project.

“You might want to consider a relocation plan,” Shaw said. “You’re not even in the 10-year plan. We’d have to push someone off the list.”

Link to perspective drawing for new addition.

Link to floor plan for new addition.

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. Patrick Cashman :

    One correction.
    The statement; “he has 15 full-time workers in his employ ” is wholly incorrect. The State of Vermont allocates the work of 15 State employees to the duties of the Auditor of Accounts. They are not employees of Mr. Hoffer.
    On a side note, would it be possible to publish the provided floor plans? The picture provided doesn’t seem to jive with the statement of the Auditor that the house is 1,740 square feet.

  2. $400 a square foot? Who the hell are the contractors? $20,000 for a feasibility study? Shouldn’t they decide first if their going to move or add on? Seems there is no limit when it comes to making Government bigger!

  3. Doug Hoffer :

    Anne

    A few points of clarification. First, I asked the Dept. of Buildings & General Services to draft plans for a modest addition to house four people. In the course of her work, the state architect (who did a fine job btw) determined there was a need for some work on the existing structure that has nothing to do with the proposed addition.

    This includes moving some of the electrical and mechanical equipment currently located in the basement, which is in the floodway, and blocking some windows in the basement to help protect against flood waters. And technically, the stairwell is required by safety codes for the existing building (which is out of compliance in many areas) but would also provide access to the new office space.

    This was all discussed at length at the meeting.

    Second, the garage is not for use by the Auditor’s office but would replace an existing maintenance shed that BGS needs to deal with regardless of what happens to our building. Therefore, it would be more accurate to describe the building as a project serving both the Auditor’s Office and the Dept. of Buildings & Services.

    Once you remove those items from the plan, the square footage devoted to the new office space above the garage is less than 600 square feet, instead of 1,200. And of course the cost per square foot for the office space declines by more than half.

    This too was discussed in committee.

    Furthermore, while this proposal is new to the committee, the representative from the Dept. of Buildings & General Services stated clearly that improvements to the Auditor’s Office were part of a set of recommendations made about the entire capital complex after Hurricane Irene.

    This was also made clear at the meeting but not mentioned in your article.

    Finally, we were well aware that this proposal would have to compete with other unmet needs. The proposal was for $20,000 to allow for a more detailed and precise estimate of the costs by the Dept. of Buildings & General Services. This would then inform discussion next year.

    BTW – Regarding the suggestion that we consider alternatives: We have been considering a variety of options. But the Auditor’s Office has been at this location for 50 years and, if possible, we would prefer to stay.

    • Patrick Cashman :

      Doug,
      If there is underutilized space elsewhere, and it sure sounds like there is, then mere good stewardship of state resources demands you look to utilize that space first.

      • Doug Hoffer :

        To my knowledge, there is no underutilized office space in the capital complex. The reference to “open space” is about the future. The Agency of Education will be moving to a new building in Barre and the Dept. of Buildings & General Services is considering various options for the vacated space. There are a lot of moving parts and the Auditor’s Office is just one.

        • Patrick Cashman :

          Doug,
          So get in line with everyone else and wait.

          You seem to be making a lot of demands.
          You are demanding your section not share space with other offices.
          You are demanding you get more space immediately instead of waiting.
          You are demanding that your office not relocate.
          And you are demanding new construction.
          If safety concerns exist that need to be fixed then by all means fix them. But the state is not best served by catering to the whims of every department head.

          Out of curiosity; how many hours of state funded time have already been expended on this by drawing up floor plans, perspective drawing and construction estimates?

        • justin jackson :

          Call me crazy, but didn’t we elect you to shutdown pork barrel expenditures such as this? Shouldn’t you be spending all your time in other state offices auditing them anyway? Our taxes are already high enough. I don’t want .5 million more of my money invested in the beauocracy when you can just move into a state salt storage building or something. Just saying.

  4. Michael Colby :

    After one – yes one — year in office this is his big project? I can’t wait for year two when Hoffer releases a plan to upgrade the Auditor’s status to that of the Governor.

    Hoffer needs to spend less time commenting on blogs and planning office improvements and more time — all of it, perhaps — on audits.

    • Fred Woogmaster :

      Just goes to show ya and
      Each to his own
      This guy is just what
      the State needs
      and will prompt much
      needed change over time –
      in my view.

    • Doug Hoffer :

      Mr. Colby

      Surely you would agree that the audit staff needs (and deserves) adequate space to do the work. In my view, meeting the needs of my staff is a big part of my job, whether it’s training, tools, or office space.

      And as for the work, anyone can see the audits completed and in progress on the website.

      http://auditor.vermont.gov/audits/performance

      http://auditor.vermont.gov/sites/auditor/files/Audit_Calendar.pdf

      • justin jackson :

        So you are serving bread and water to the rest of the state while you are cooking pork.

  5. Thomas Joseph :

    I applaud State Auditor Hoffer for advocating for the necessary space and resources that he needs to ensure his office fulfills its role to the citizens of our great state.

    The push back from state legislators is unfortunate. Perhaps, if the legislators knew that the State of Vermont Medicaid Fraud Unit actually accepts formal intakes on the suspicion of fraud from the public but doesn’t have adequate resources to pursue or follow up with those who provide formal intakes, they might recognize that its more critical than ever that Mr. Hoffer be given the necessary resources for the State Auditor’s Office to be successful.

    Taken together with Mr. Hoffer’s advocacy of whistleblower’s and his singular efforts to protect the identity of those who contact his office, demonstrates to me that he may be the only person in Montpelier doing anything proactive to fight fraud in our great state.

    • Patrick Cashman :

      Mr. Joseph,
      State employees are already protected from reprisal by state law. What Mr. Hoffer wants is to be able to use secret sources as the basis for investigations. That’s one small step towards “I have in my hand a list…”

      It should also be mentioned that the growth in the office to 15, cited above as the justification for new construction, occurred when Mr. Hoffer made a secret, unadvertised and un-competed hire of a local reporter.

      • Andrew Stein :

        Actually, Patrick, our 15th man is named Jonathan Kingston. He has 15 years of auditing experience and is a military veteran, who fought in Afghanistan. He is a detail-oriented, common-sense thinker. The kind of guy any Vermonter should feel proud to have in the state’s government accountability office. He works in the hall because there is no room anywhere else in 132 State Street. To get your facts in line on the Office of the Vermont State Auditor’s staff, head here: http://auditor.vermont.gov/contact_us/staff

        • Patrick Cashman :

          Andrew,
          Thanks but I’m counting based on new positions not last in the door. Unless you maintain that the staff at your office has not grown under Mr. Hoffer’s time. Thanks for the link though, it is interesting to see that now Doug is describing your duties as “Executive Assistant” which, in addition to his personal secretary and a deputy, means the state is paying for a pretty ample personal staff.
          While I think it is great the auditor’s office is hiring a veteran with actual relevant experience that was not the case in your unadvertised and non-competitive hiring. Hopefully in the case of Mr. Kingston his position was advertised and he competed successfully against other qualified applicants.

      • Thomas Joseph :

        Regardless of anyone’s opinion of Mr. Hoffer, I always admire those who advocate for their staff and fight for the resources needed to be successful. More importantly, Mr. Hoffer is the only elected official in Montpelier talking about what resources he needs for his staff to be successful given that the State of Vermont lacks adequate resources to fight fraud. He also happens to be the only public official in Montpelier doing anything to advocate for the interests of whistleblowers.

      • Thomas Joseph :

        Please review my original comment. I made no mention of the status of whether state employees were already protected. More importantly, I tried to highlight that little appetite exists in Monpelier to fight fraud with the exception of Mr. Hoffer’s latest efforts. I believe some could be misinterpreting the intention of Mr. Hoffer’s plans. Instead of recognizing that he is proactively going after the resources and tools that his office requires to fulfill its statutory obligations, many are essentially suggesting he is acting irresponsibly. Unless I missed it, didn’t Mr. Hoffer win the last election?

      • Adam Norton :

        First, the VSEA survey, which had over 600 responses, found that state employees do not believe that the existing statute protects them from reprisal. Second, to suggest that Hoffer intends to abuse his position like former Senator Joseph McCarthy is ludicrous. Attacking the state auditor for merely requesting the space necessary to allow his modest staff to work independently from the departments they are auditing just seems petty.

        • patrick cashman :

          First, that sounds like an education and representation failure of these employees by the VSEA.  The law was endorsed by VSEA in 2008, to include providing testimony in support of it (per March 14 2008 Rutland Herald and the Sep 2008 Progressives’ endorsement of Pollina).  The VSEA got what they wanted, so spend the time to figure out how to use it to meet the intent of the statute you asked for.

          Second, no one expected McCarthy to abuse his position either.  However the time to get in front of these things is before they happen.  In the Auditor’s case he wants to use secret sources as justification to expend State funds, time and manpower on investigations.  Which is odd as the statute describing the actual duties of his office makes very little allowance for discretion in audits.  Vermonters shouldn’t have to answer to top-secret accusers, potentially accusers so secret they only exist within one individual’s head.  Regardless of whether you like a particular individual’s peculiar politics doesn’t excuse endorsing police state methods.

          Finally, the idea that the independence of an organization depends on their being physically isolated is ludicrous.  If that were the case, is there a particular distance required?  Is just across the street sufficient or should they be on a mountaintop somewhere?  Potentially in an undisclosed location somewhere deep underneath Mansfield, communicating only via tele-presence with hoods covering their faces in order to avoid contamination of their independence?  The independence of the organization is solely a reflection of the moral fiber of its members and the leadership provided to them.  If Doug can’t guarantee independence if he is forced to potentially share an office building, or perhaps forego his “small porch”, then the problem isn’t space, it’s leadership.

  6. Ann Meade :

    I don’t know Doug Hoffer personally but I have always been impressed by his thoughtful posts and his obvious commitment to his position and the state. I can’t imagine why he would open this can of worms unless it was necessary. Those buildings on State Street clearly need to be maintained and updated. I for one would much rather do that than spend more money on rent at National Life which seems to be the answer for all space issues in state government.

  7. patrick cashman :

    Ms Meade,
    Please note that Mr. Hoffer did not identify a need, he instead demanded a particular solution. He could have raised whatever space issue he believes exists to the Building and General Services folks and asked for help and suggestions. Instead he had a state employee draw up plans and said “build me this, now.”

  8. David Dempsey :

    I was a controller for a Vermont college and I worked with independant auditors for the schools financials, state auditors who monitored state grants, federal auditors for federal grants and auditors for private grant foundations. The purpose of these audits was to make sure the money gets spent the way it is suppose to be spent. Auditors follow the money to make sure that the college spent the money according to our own policies and procedures, and that we are also are in compliance with all state, federal or other grantors regulations. In Vermont, the Auditor is responsible for all of the above. Recently the state has been cited and fined for not complying with federal grant regulations. Taxpayer money flushed down the toilet for avoidable mistakes. If the auditor does his job well, he can find waste and mismangement in all areas of state spending and can save taxpayers money. Because the auditors job is to save taxpayer dollars instead of spending them, if they can justify the need for the space, I think it is money well spent.

  9. Jim Barrett :

    I would like to suggest that the number of employees be reduced and thus making more space avaiable to everyone. However in government reducing anything that costs the taxpaers money is almost ciminal. This spending farce goes on at the town level, the state and National level. The total number of employees is the question and should be reviewed immediately and reduced.

    • Adam Norton :

      From the perspective of someone who witnesses the waste and incompetence in state government on a daily basis, the auditors staff should be doubled, not reduced. Moreover, the auditors office receives only about 10% of it’s funding from the state general fund.

  10. Jed Guertin :

    Patrick Cashman states “State employees are already protected from reprisal by state law.”

    It would be a good idea if Cashman knew what he was talking about.

    As a whistleblower, I can assure you that state employees are not protected from reprisal, not by a long shot.

    Doug Hoffer’s attempt to create a realistic open environment for those in state government to speak out is to be lauded. These issues are at best complex and require focus, something a hallway office can’t afford.

    I can guarantee you that if he were around when I spoke out the State would be many million dollars richer today.

    • patrick cashman :

      You might want to review the Vermont Statutes.  Title 3, Chapter 27, specifically sub-chapter 4A titled “Whistleblower Protection”.  From that sub-chapter:   “971. Intent of subchapter  A state employee, as a trustee and servant of the people, shall be free to report, in good faith and with candor, waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violations of law, or a threat to the health of employees, the public, or persons under the care of the state without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or retaliation. (Added 2007, No. 128 (Adj. Sess.), § 1, eff. May 13, 2008.)

      • Jed Guertin :

        Dear Mr. Cashman,

        It’s funny you should mention the statute.

        I’ve read the statute, more than a few times, and can say with authority it’s both useless and toothless.

        There’s nothing straight forward about whistleblowing, the statute is nothing more than a feel good piece of legislation. Sounds nice, but with no teeth.

        And the issue I blew the whistle over (1995) is still having a significant financial impact on the State today.

        Doug Hoffer has hit on an issue that could save the state of VT millions of dollars a year. His efforts could more than pay for his needed space.

        Maybe, VTDIGGER, would be interested in doing a piece on the anatomy of a whistleblowing incident.

  11. Ken Pidgeon :

    Wow! Hats off to VTDigger. This article inspired comments and responses from the public, the State Auditor, at least one of his staff, and the Journalist herself. Excellent job Anne.

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