WATERBURY — Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration are on top of the world, with a second term-defining victory this week.
Two days after Entergy announced it was closing the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to fund a generous portion of the new Waterbury State Office Complex, which will replace the aging facility damaged by Tropical Storm Irene two years ago.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate delivered the news from Waterbury on Thursday, promising Vermonters his agency would pay out roughly $35 million for the new facility and $7 million in reimbursements for emergency clean-up and moving costs.
When those FEMA dollars are combined with projected insurance proceeds of about $18 million, the state would be responsible for paying $72 million for the estimated $125 million complex. Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said all of those state funds are budgeted through 2016, except for almost $10 million.
The new complex is the first project in the country to take advantage of the Public Assistance Alternative Procedures Pilot Program, created by the federal legislation aimed at aiding Hurricane Sandy victims. The program allows FEMA and the state to use federal funds more flexibly to rebuild with climate change in mind.
“Our job is to come in and support the governors and their teams,” Fugate said below a tent filled with state officials and Vermonters at the old state office site. “We don’t always get to say yes, because we have a responsibility to all taxpayers to be protecting their interest and making sure we are making investments — not just building back, but building back better.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Shumlin and dozens of state officials and lawmakers joined Fugate on Thursday for the FEMA funding announcement — two years to the date after state employees found their office buildings inundated by Irene. Fugate said that after Tropical Storm Irene and then Hurricane Sandy, President Barack Obama told him, “We can’t just build back to what was, we have to build for our future.”
Leahy, Fugate said, played an integral role in passing the Sandy legislation with this new FEMA program to help states build back stronger than before.
“This is a good investment for all taxpayers because in the future when the next disaster occurs, and unfortunately there will be a next disaster, the … state buildings, the hospital will no longer be in the floodplain,” Fugate said. “They are elevated. They are built back for the future. That’s a good investment anytime for a federal taxpayer.”
The projected Irene-related costs of building the new state office complex, creating new acute mental health system facilities, renovating new state offices and dealing with emergency clean-up costs on state property totals $225.5 million. Of that amount, FEMA has agreed to pay $66.2 million.
The administration projects that by the end of 2013, the state will receive $53.2 million in reimbursements from its insurer, Lexington Insurance Co., a subsidiary of American International Group. For all of the state facility replacements and clean-up costs, the state would then have $119.5 million, or more than half the total cost of the projects, from outside sources. ‘’
Mark Landry has been the FEMA coordinator for Vermont in the wake of Irene.
“The Waterbury state office complex is probably the biggest project of Tropical Storm Irene,” he said. “When the dust settles … the funding that goes out to improve public infrastructure (across states) is roughly $221 to $225 million.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ aide David Weinstein said Vermont has received almost $600 million from a range of federal agencies and departments for Irene-related recovery.
Shumlin told Vermonters huddled under the tent Thursday that the recent commitment from FEMA to fund the office complex will save taxpayers millions in the long run.
“One of the points I think we might have missed when we focused so hard on the flood is the outcome of this will not only be better service, more efficiency and better energy savings, but also huge savings for Vermonters,” Shumlin said. “When we complete the construction of Waterbury in 2015 … we’re going to save $2.5 million in operating costs here in Waterbury as a result of having good, clean working space. In 10 years, that’s $25 million saved by Vermont taxpayers.”
After the mutual praise subsided, Shumlin handed Fugate a gallon of Vermont maple syrup and passed out three four packs of the iconic brew from Waterbury’s Alchemist brewery: Heady Topper. Shumlin and the other officials then threw on hardhats and turned to a pair of excavators that began knocking down the north side of the old Osgood building at the complex.
On the back of the excavators was the Irene rally cry: “Vermont Strong.”
“Not only is Vermont strong, but after a project like this I think you’re going to be Vermont stronger,” Landry said.