State’s bottled water ban evaporates

Bottled water

Bottled water

Is bottled water a necessity or a luxury? That’s the $213,000 question the Shumlin administration has decided to take a pass on for now. (Last year, the state spent the aforementioned total on thousands of water bottles for the state’s workforce.)

In the near term, Secretary of the Agency of Administration Jeb Spaulding has decided that in many instances bottled water is a necessity for state employees who may not have access to potable water in the workplace.

Spaulding announced last month he would suspend implementation of a ban on bottled water by July 1 in the aftermath of a wellspring of opposition to the proposal from state workers.

Back in March, the bottled water ban was seen as a win-win for everybody: Lawmakers and the administration saw the proposal, similar to bans in New York, Colorado and Illinois, as a way to save money at a time when they faced a $175 million budget gap; The Vermont State Employees Association, which represents about 5,500 state workers, saw it as a way to save jobs; and Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, touted the elimination of this “luxury” item as a way to save the environment.

The Vermont State Employees Association touted the proposal because it would spell the elimination of the state’s private contract with bottled water companies, including Crystal Rock Holdings, of Watertown, Conn. The amount of money the state spends annually on private contracts has long been a bone of contention for the union. Under the Douglas administration, many government services were privatized. The number of “personal service contracts” has grown from 727 at a cost of $110 million per year in 2003, to 1,570 contracts at a total cost of $237 million in 2011. In non-contractual negotiations with the Shumlin administration, the union and Spaulding agreed to a $2 million reduction in private contracts. So far, Spaulding says those savings have yet to materialize.

Conor Casey, legislative coordinator for the union, told the Associated Press in March: “It’s (bottled water) a luxury a lot of our members enjoy, but I think that as we’ve done in the past, we’re trying to put public services first here. It makes more sense to invest in public infrastructure for water.”

Support for the bottled water ban from VSEA members and other state workers, however, evaporated almost as soon as the proposal hit the ground.

Spaulding heeded the rumblings and called for the suspension of the ban in a memo to state employees on June 21. Spaulding said in an interview that his agency heard from highway garages that only had one grease sink available, other state workplaces only had access to water from bathrooms or had concerns about the potability of municipal water.

“We’re suspending implementation of the policy until we have a chance to look through it,” Spaulding said. “It was the right thing to step back and consider issues and concerns — a lot of them are warranted. We hope to resolve it in a month or two. We need 60 days to cancel contracts.”

At the moment those issues could be structural and expensive. Many of the water fountains in the state’s biggest workplaces – the Waterbury complex and 133 State St. – have been removed. The only water fountain at the Department of Motor Vehicles (120 State St.), a five-story office building that also houses the Department of Education, is on the first floor.

Spaulding said it’s a lot to ask employees to trek that far for drinking water – particularly in the summer heat (there is no air conditioning in the building).

He wrote in his memo to state workers that while the administration is, “committed to environmental conservation, support for municipal water systems, and conservative use of taxpayer funds. It is also committed to the well being of state employees and recognizes that good morale is the foundation of strong productivity and customer service.”

Jes Kraus, executive director of VSEA, praised the administration’s response. He said the ban was not as simple to implement as originally envisioned.

“They’ve been proactive in trying to assess this,” Kraus said. “They’ve come to realize it’s not as simple as this is a contract we’d like to do away with. They have an interest, as we do, in making sure employees have safe drinking water available.”

The pushback from employees is also a sign of better times. VSEA originally proposed the ban as a cost-saving measure in lieu of layoffs. “Now, thankfully, we’re not in same position,” Kraus said. “Workers want to make sure their water is OK.”

Anne Galloway

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