Douglas wants employees out of Bennington office building by end of March

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas wants all state employees out of a Bennington office building by the end of March.

State workers say that the building may be responsible for a variety of illnesses they have experienced.

We have two reports, the first from John Dillon in Montpelier.

(Dillon) The governor’s announcement came two days after he visited the state offices and heard an earful of complaints from employees.

Since last summer, the state employees have wanted to be moved from the building. They suspect that the building is responsible for a high incidence of sarcoidosis, a rare illness characterized by abnormal inflammation.

The state promised in October to move the workers, but progress has been slow. Douglas said he’s frustrated by the delays.

(Douglas) “It was summer when I first asked the health department to look into the air quality and soil quality issues. There were a number of delays along the way, some of them perhaps avoidable, some unavoidable. But the level of anxiety among the workforce in that building has grown along with the delays. And I want to be sure they have a safe and healthy place to work. And I want to be sure that the hundreds of people who come in the building every day are not concerned about that environment either.”

(Dillon) The administration has ordered a phased shutdown of the building, with some court workers to be temporarily transferred to courthouses in Manchester and Bennington.

Administration Secretary Michael Smith said he hopes some employees can move by the beginning of March.

(Smith) “I’ve sort of re-adjusted how we do this. I’ve asked local managers in the agencies to plan how they want to move people so that we can do it more rapidly and then have building and general services sort of assist them in how they want do it, but make their own decisions about how they want to move, and how quickly they want to move.”

(Dillon) The governor’s announcement about the state employees came during a news conference in which he discussed the events of a difficult week, including the Bennington situation and a security breach in a state computer system.

Douglas seemed to try to shift some of the responsibility to others – including Democrats, the media, and the administration of former Governor Howard Dean.

But later in the afternoon, Douglas took the unusual step of meeting with reporters again. He sought to clarify his remarks. He said he wasn’t trying to blame anybody else.

(Douglas) “The bucks stops with me. I have that sign on my desk at the Pavilion, as you know, those of you who have been there. And we’ll continue to provide the leadership we need to address all these challenges.”

(Dillon) Legislative and the state employees union said they were pleased the governor has set a timetable to close the Bennington building. Union officials said they believe pressure from the Legislature spurred the Douglas Administration to act quickly.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

(Keese) and I’m Susan Keese in Bennington. Where members of the Senate Institutions committee and other legislators spent the day sizing up the situation on the ground.

(Construction sounds)

(Keese) Washington County Sen. Phil Scott chairs the Institutions Committee.

(Scott) “There’s been a lot of rhetoric and a lot of posturing. And we just wanted to get to the bottom of it and see it we could get the facts for ourselves.”

(Keese) What the members found was a hive of accelerated activity. Doubled and tripled crews were working on two enormous phalanxes of modular building on either side of the so-called sick office building. Senator Scott says he was cautious about the situation before he saw it firsthand.

(Scott) “Because again, we’re hearing all kinds of different accounts of what we should have done from a buildings perspective, temporary space issues. And we went around today to take a look at some of those other alternatives and when you look at the magnitude of this, yeah, it’s a lot of money. And a lot of people are questioning why we aren’t moving faster. But when you get here and see it you understand what everyone’s up against.”

(Keese) Scott also said he hoped the governor’s time frame for evacuating the sick building wasn’t an unrealistic response to political pressure. Officials here say the smaller temporary complex should be ready to house corrections workers and the state’s community high school by the governor’s March deadline. But the larger complex which will house the courts and human services were just being delivered this week.

Workers who will relocate to those buildings were preparing an interim temporary move to accommodate the governor’s schedule.

Courthouses in Manchester and downtown Bennington have agreed to take in court activities on a short term basis. Other solutions are still being worked out.

Meanwhile, Bennington Representative Mary Morrissey says a seventh case of sarcoidosis has been diagnosed.

(Morrissey) “Again yes, we still haven’t determined if it’s the building that’s causing it. But the rate is just so high one can’t help strongly feel that this building truly is a sick building.”

(Keese) Once the occupants are out, the office building will be dissected by environmental contractors, and a decision is made about what to do next.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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