Editor’s note: This op-ed is by John Reese, president of the Vermont State Employees Association. It first ran in the Times Argus and Rutland Herald on Nov. 18.
Vermont was thankfully spared the full fury of Hurricane Sandy, but had the storm tracked our way, thousands of dedicated Vermont state and public employees stood ready again to respond to public safety emergencies, keep our roads open, protect our most vulnerable citizens from harm, test our water and other environments and provide a whole host of additional services.
In fact, a big part of why Vermont was able to get back on its feet so quickly after Irene’s devastation is due to Vermont state employees and the critical services we provide. But with a projected $50-$70 million budget deficit facing Vermont in fiscal year 2013, many Vermont state employees, including myself, are very concerned that lawmakers and the administration will again be asking us to balance the budget on our backs — at a time when many state agencies and departments are just beginning to rebound or are still struggling due to cuts, retirements and a marked increase in the demand for services.
To its great credit, the Shumlin administration has negotiated fairly with state employees and has worked with VSEA to try and repair some of the damage done to state government by Gov. Douglas’ “cutting exercises,” but as Secretary of the Administration Spaulding recently acknowledged, it has been slow going and the initial cutting probably went too deep.
It’s not just the announced budget deficit facing Vermont in 2013 that’s worrying state employees and the Vermonters who use our services; it’s also uncertainty about exactly how much FEMA aid is coming to our state to repair/rebuild state offices damaged by Irene and uncertainty about how Vermont’s budget will be impacted by deep federal budget cuts that could be coming soon.
It’s not just the announced budget deficit facing Vermont in 2013 that’s worrying state employees and the Vermonters who use our services; it’s also uncertainty about exactly how much FEMA aid is coming to our state to repair/rebuild state offices damaged by Irene and uncertainty about how Vermont’s budget will be impacted by deep federal budget cuts that could be coming soon. In addition, VSEA members know that Corrections is asking for an additional $3 million to $4 million, LIHEAP is receiving an increase of nearly $9 million, and there are unknown costs associated with the recently reported state computer system failures and contracting questions. It’s been widely reported that the failure of the Judiciary’s IT system could cost Vermonters $5 million and that a similar IT failure at the DMV has already cost $9 million and — according to reports — could total $18 million after all is said and done. Are Judiciary and DMV managers and employees now going to be asked to find ways to replace the millions of Vermont taxpayer dollars lost due to the failure of a few private contractors to adequately perform their job? Hopefully not, as these employees had absolutely nothing to do with these lost millions, and, in some cases, I know VSEA members believe they could have done the job better than the high-priced private contractor.
As I wrote earlier, in many places, Vermont’s quality public services are slowly getting back to where they once were, prior to the various position/service “cutting exercises” and last year’s highly unfortunate devastation to services by Tropical Storm Irene. However, there are still agencies and departments across state government where there aren’t enough employees to provide the level of services required or mandated — and it is costing Vermont money.
In the case of the state’s Economic Services Division (ESD), where deep cuts were made, improper staffing levels are believed to have contributed to their recently reported loss of federal funds. And at the Vermont Veterans’ Home, ongoing staffing issues helped contribute to the facility almost losing its federal funding and certification. In times of supposed fiscal restraint, this is federal funding Vermont can ill afford to lose. For this reason alone, Vermont cannot afford to now retreat from the effort to return our critical public services to full strength with full staffing.
It’s true that no cuts have officially been placed on the table yet, and VSEA members hope there won’t be, but given the past few years, state employees can’t help but again be concerned about how we are going to pay down our FY2013 deficit. More cuts to services and positions? We hope not, because there is another way. Like President Obama is advocating for the nation, let’s ask the wealthiest Vermonters to pay a little more to help enable our state to continue providing the level and quality of services Vermonters expect. VSEA members hope lawmakers and the Shumlin administration will follow President Obama’s lead and call on the wealthiest Vermonters to step up a little for Vermont, as state employees have — several times.
I’m sure there will be those readers out there who, no matter what, think state employees are overpaid and enjoy far greater benefits than people working in the private sector. That’s a shame because, more than any other group, Vermont state employees have consistently made the sacrifices asked of us to help keep our state on sound financial footing. We agreed to a 3 percent reduction in pay and a freeze to our step increases, and we have twice recently increased the amount of money being contributed to our, for the most part, modest pensions (average Vermont state employee’s pension = $19,000/year).
Again, state employees did not cause our pension plans to lose millions, but we agreed to help repair some of the damage done by Wall Street greed. And if you believe that no one should have a pension or retirement security, then I feel sorry for you, as you are a leader in Vermont’s race to the bottom.
Many state employees are also still in temporary worksites because of Irene, and they have seen their household costs rise considerably in the past year because they are driving further to get to and from work and gasoline prices have been at an all-time high. It is way past time to expect that cutting, cutting and more cutting is the only answer to maintaining the quality of Vermont’s already shredded public services. We can and must do better for Vermont and Vermonters.