House Passes $173 Million Capital Bill, With Continuing Focus On Irene Recovery

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The House has unanimously approved a two-year capital construction bill that solidifies a commitment to rebuild the Waterbury state office complex devastated by Tropical Storm Irene.

The bill includes $173 million in spending, with close to $70 million dollars set aside for Irene-related projects.

This is the second legislative session that lawmakers have crafted a two year spending cycle for state construction projects.

And a top priority remains repairing or replacing buildings damaged by the floodwaters of Irene.

Springfield Democrat Alice Emmons chairs the House Institutions Committee. She said the legislation will improve the state’s infrastructure, and provide needed employment for the construction trades. She said her committee scoured the capital budget to find money that had not yet been spent or was left over from earlier projects.

"We have found $5.6 million, almost $5.7 million to put back into our state economy. Those dollars were lying fallow," she said. "They were not being used. And now they will be used in our economy to employ our contractors, our builders, our electricians and our plumbers."

The $70 million in Irene projects include replacing the flooded state hospital, rebuilding the Waterbury complex and new offices for state workers at the National Life building in Montpelier.

The total cost for the Waterbury offices is expected to be around $125 million. The 2014-2015 spending plan sets aside $56 million for Waterbury and lawmakers expect all but $6 million or so of the difference will come from insurance payments and from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said the Waterbury piece represents the state’s commitment to the town and the region.

"The Waterbury complex is not just about bricks and mortar. That’s about keeping faith with the people of Waterbury, about returning workers to the town of Waterbury – and that’s important," he said.

But Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre City, wanted assurances that the state could start work on the Waterbury piece if the FEMA money isn’t sufficient to pay for the project.

"Is there any language in here that specifically allows the Joint Fiscal Committee to increase the cost if we find out that the FEMA money or the bids and everything else comes in over budget?" he asked. "Is there anything in here that gives the Joint Fiscal Committee that authority?"

Institutions Committee Chairwoman Alice Emmons told Poirier that the capital bill sets up a review process for when the Legislature is not in session.

She said the House and Senate Institutions Committee would meet if the project’s cost rise by 10 percent or more, or if the design changes substantially.

"And in that meeting (the committee would) make a determination, if the plan had been changed enough that we need to halt and we need to wait until the session started, or if it has not changed enough, that we can continue," she said. "When it gets into your dollar amounts, we are very clear it is up to the Legislature to make that decision."

In an interview, Emmons expressed confidence that the FEMA funds would be available to rebuild the Waterbury complex.

"FEMA came through for the state hospital. I have faith that the same will happen here," she said. "We don’t know the exact amount but as I said I just have faith, and we keep working through the process."

With little debate, the House voted 135-0 to approve the capital bill. It comes up later this month in the Senate.

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