Irene displaces nearly 1,600 Vt. state workers

By Lisa Rathke

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2011 12:00 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 8, 2011 photo, piles of debris from the Agriculture Laboratory in the state office complex lie on the ground in Waterbury, Vt. Tropical Storm Irene's flood damage didn't just make for highway headaches. It dealt a seismic blow to Vermont state government's office complex in Waterbury, flooding nearly every building, forcing the relocation of some 1,500 workers and prompting the state to consider selling it once a $20 million cleanup is finished.

Toby Talbot, Associated Press

WATERBURY, Vt. — Tropical Storm Irene's flooding didn't just damage hundreds of roads and homes in Vermont. It dealt a seismic blow to Vermont state government's office complex in Waterbury, flooding nearly every building in the 550,000-square-feet of space, displacing nearly 1,600 workers and prompting the state to consider selling it once an estimated $20 million cleanup is finished.

As of Friday, 663 employees were not working, waiting until interim space can be found and 921 others were working from their homes and other alternative sites, officials said.

"It could take six months to a year, potentially even longer to get an assessment of all the possibilities for the Waterbury complex or alternatives to the Waterbury complex," said Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding.

Some workers have moved into state office space left over from the downsizing of state government during the administration of Gov. Jim Douglas. The state is also working out leases to move most of the other workers into office space in Burlington, Williston, Winooski, Barre Town and Montpelier, considering space at companies like IBM or Northern Power Systems in Waitsfield. The cost of those moves haven't been determined, officials said.

"We're trying to maximize the use of taxpayers' vacant space, which there isn't a lot of," said Michael Obuchowski, commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services.

When the storm flooded the state psychiatric hospital at the complex, the 51 patients and staff had to be evacuated to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, the Brattleboro Retreat in Brattleboro and Southern Vermont Correctional Facility in Springfield.

That meant Kris Martin, 38, a psychiatric technician who owns a home in Waterbury, has had to make the two-hour commute to Brattleboro — where he works 12-hour days and stays in a hotel — three or four days a week. The new schedule has forced him to withdraw from classes at Community College of Vermont and prevented him writing his fishing column for the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, for now.

"My life is in Waterbury. The center of everything is right here," in Waterbury. "To drive two hours to go to work is difficult."

While no decision has been made on the future of the Vermont State Hospital built in the 1890s, Mental Health Commissioner Christine Oliver said Friday, Martin hopes the damage will force the state to move quickly to replace the aging facility, which has been in limbo for years.

"It took this tropical storm to put a gun their head to make a decision," he said.

For workers who now have to make a longer commute, the state workers union hasn't heard too many complaints about the interim change but employees are worried about the future.

"People are definitely anxious ..." said Conor Casey, legislative liaison for the Vermont State Employees Association. "Certainly they're talking about the complex may never reopen so you know if you live in a place like Randolph, Northfield, it might not have been a long trip to Waterbury before but now it would be quite a long trip to Burlington."

The union hopes to talk with the administration about accommodating those workers, possibly allowing them to work at home at least a few days a week, he said.

"We need to get back to some level of normalcy because it wears on people. It wears on people when it's not anticipated," Casey said.

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