Governor Shumlin’s Big, Happy, Backslappy Day: Updated

(The projected title of my forthcoming children’s book, based loosely on today’s gubernatorial event.)

I think it’s safe to say that a politician is on a roll when he schedules an outdoor news event for early January in Vermont, and he draws a sunny day with unseasonably warm temperatures. So yeah, Governor Shumlin is on a roll.

The Governor was happy as a pig in you-know-what as he presided over the dedication of the future state mental hospital in Berlin. And revealed the funding sources for the $42 million project, which (he says) are already accounted for, and will require no state funding aside from amounts already set aside.  

Construction won’t actually start for another nine days (completion projected for early spring 2014), but there was a definite air of victory and celebration. Shumlin was surrounded by state and local officials*, legislative leaders, FEMA’s top liaison with Vermont, a friendly crowd that applauded frequently (news media excepted, natch), and a guy who I assume was Shumlin’s security, wearing the Winter Ensemble from the Secret Service Men’s Catalog and a pair of Samuel L. Jackson motherf*cker sunglasses, scanning the crowd for signs of trouble.

*There was even a rare Doug Racine sighting! Although he stayed well in the background and didn’t say a word during the ceremony.

And there was none. Afterward, he even cracked a smile as he talked the new James Bond film with VPR’s John Dillon. (Aww, John, I had you pegged for an art-house subtitle kind of guy.)

But I digress, I certainly do.  

Shumlin and friends, putting the “dig” in “dignitary.”

Shumlin exuded an air of confidence bordering on smugness, calling the post-Irene effort to remake the mental health care system “an example of the best of Vermont,” claiming that “we all made the right decision together” (which would come as a surprise to the medical professionals who still have real concerns with his plan), and promising “the best community-based mental health system in America” (gee, I thought it was the first and only one).

The confidence came less from the groundbreaking itself than from the financial package he was able to unveil. Vermont will get at least $30 million combined from FEMA and its insurance carrier. The precise mix remains to be seen, as Shumlin explained:

The first payment has to come from the insurer. When we get money from FEMA, it’s a 90-10 match, so we have to pay 10%. So our first job is to wrangle as much out of the insurance company as we can get; then we turn to the FEMA dollars.

The remaining cost, somewhere between $12.5 and $15 million, will come from state coffers — but last year, $18 million was set aside in the capital budget for the purpose, so no new funds will be needed.

The news might get even better. As you may recall, there’s been a dispute between the state and FEMA on whether to build structures that are equivalent to what existed pre-Irene or better, more flood-resistant, and more expensive replacements. Apparently, Sen. Patrick Leahy has added language to the Hurricane Sandy aid bill that would loosen FEMA’s rules on this point. If the bill becomes law, Vermont is likely to get even more FEMA dollars.  

Although it’s clear that Shumlin is getting less money from FEMA than he’d hoped, he said he was “thrilled” with the outcome, and allowed himself to take a victory lap at his critics’ expense:

I have taken some heat over the last months for pushing ahead with this project without knowing exactly how the dollars would flow. I take responsibility for that judgment.

Which is an easy thing to say when you’ve cemented your funding, but yes, he has managed to back up his self-confidence with results.

The Governor also claimed  that if you look at it in a certain way, federal funds will more than pay the entire cost of the new system:

When the federal government decertified our state hospital a decade ago, Vermont lost $10 million every single year in federal reimbursements. We anticipate that when this system comes on line, we will once again enjoy the federal reimbursements. Put in very rough math, when we get those reimbursements back, we will pay for our entire new system with federal dollars in roughly a year and a half.

Eh, yes and no. Shumlin is doing what he’s consistently done: compare his new system to the much-detested Vermont State Hospital. The choice wasn’t between the old VSH and a shiny new system; it was between a new State Hospital and a decentralized system. Truth is, if a new central hospital had been built, it would also have been sunny, inviting, and state-of-the-art, and would also have re-qualified Vermont for that $10 million per year.

There are still a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross, but whether or not you agree with the Governor’s plan, yesterday was a milestone in the Irene recovery effort. FEMA funds will begin to flow within 30 days. Shumlin expects a final decision on funding for the rest of the Waterbury office complex in “a month to a month and a half.”  

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