Major impact? ‘Challenges for Change’ could dissolve local organizations

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BENNINGTON -- A state budget savings plan heavily touted by the Douglas administration and legislative leaders could dissolve countywide organizations that provide services to area businesses and municipalities.

Republican Gov. James Douglas joined House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, both Democrats, in a show of unity earlier this session in announcing the Challenges for Change program.

The plan, developed in concert with a private consultant, called for specificbudget cuts and outcomes with a plan to achieve them to follow.

Now, many of the proposals -- aimed at saving the state a total of $38 million -- are facing stiff opposition from rank-and-file lawmakers, as well as the groups impacted.

The administration revealed earlier this week an initial report on how it wants state government to achieve the savings, which the Vermont House has already included in its state budget -- without knowing how the savings would be achieved.

Under a proposal submitted by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which would cut $3.4 million in spending over the next two fiscal years, regional planning commissions and industrial corporations, along with other groups, would be dissolved.

Instead, nine Regional Service Centers would be created and incorporate the duties of:

* 12 regional development corporations

* 11 regional planning commissions

* 14 regional state employment offices

* 5 regional Micro Business Development Programs

* 8 regionally deployed Small Business Development Center councilors

* 4 employer outreach programs for employee training

Developed by a Douglas administration team led by Agency of Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Jim Saudade, the plan would reduce "significant redundancies and overlaps," according to the report, while maintaining "the full range" of planning and economic development services performed by the regional planning commissions and development corporations.

Small towns could struggle

Some people disagree, though, including Jim Sullivan, assistant executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission. "It seems to kind of show a distinct lack of understanding or appreciation for what regional planning commissions do," Sullivan said.

The planning needs of some towns without a municipal planning staff could be neglected under the proposal, Sullivan said. And the proposal "radically shifts" accountability from the municipalities that utilize the services and passes it off to the state, he said.

In addition, the administration’s proposal includes no plan on how the nine districts would be outlined. Sullivan said towns in Bennington County could be disadvantaged by geography, depending on how the districts are set up.

"It doesn’t give you a lot of direction on how to create those and how to incorporate the very different governing structures," he said. "The concern in Bennington County, as is often the case, we kind of get lumped in as Southern Vermont. Rutland and Bennington County get lumped in together, and very often things go to Rutland."

There could be a way to save money though some consolidation, according to Sullivan, but "it’s going to take a little while to figure that out and we haven’t been given any time."

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David Coriell, spokesman for Gov. James Douglas, said there is no time left -- the savings must be achieved.

"We don’t have the luxury of time. I think a lot of people who want to say, ‘slow down,’ or, ‘we can’t do this because it’s too complex,’ are people who’ve been against these proposals in the past," Coriell said.

The administration hopes interested parties can work together to develop exactly how the regional service centers will function, Coriell said.

"We’re not dictating the structure," he said. "We would certainly hope that we could all work to create these centers to accommodate the needs of all Vermonters. We wouldn’t want to see anybody left out."

Many lawmakers are uncomfortable with the administration’s proposal, too, including Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, chairman of the House Commerce Committee tasked with reviewing the plan.

"We expected the savings to come out of efficiencies and not from cuts and eliminations," Botzow said.

Rep. Jeff Wilson, D-Manchester, a member of the House Commerce Committee, said he supported the idea of Challenges for Change until the proposals were revealed Tuesday. Now, Wilson said he’s "trying to keep an open mind."

Wilson said he is "not particularly pleased" that the administration did not seek input from the organizations it wants to dissolve when developing the proposal. "That just fundamentally goes against my grain when you have this top down approach ... that doesn’t allow for proper vetting, discussion and feedback from those involved," he said. "I’m less than enthusiastic about how this may play out."

Legislative leaders hope to adjourn the legislative session by April 30, leaving lawmakers just a few weeks to review savings proposals, and in many cases, alter state statutes to allow for implementation. The timeline is "problematic," according to Wilson.

"This is a fairly dramatic change being proposed in an incredibly restricted timeline," he said. "I think that’s close to impossible to do it right."

Botzow said the administration’s proposal sent "a shock wave that went through the economic development community." But "it’s way too early to even be thinking that way," he said of eliminating the existing structure.

"We do not agree with the process that’s been put forward, and we do not agree with the savings proposal that’s been brought to us," Botzow said.

The House Commerce Committee has asked the stakeholders impacted by the proposal to develop their own savings plan. Their ideas are expected by Monday, Botzow said.

Bennington County Industrial Corp. Executive Director Peter Odierna, who provided testimony to the House Commerce Committee by phone this week, said regional commissions and development groups around the state have crafted a counter proposal that includes funding cuts "pretty much across the board," as well as a reorganization of the state Department of Economic Development.

"The situation is very fluid right now, but we think that there’s a decent probability that that will prevail at the end of the day," he said. "We don’t think that doing away with the (regional development corporations) network makes sense, particularly in this environment when everyone is pounding the table about jobs."

Sullivan said he remains skeptical that legislative leaders and the administration will adopt an alternate plan..

"[Challenges for Change has] been touted for months as this great thing showing cooperation between the Legislature and the administration," Sullivan said. "There’s a fair bit of momentum that you have to buck and steer away from.

Coriell said the administration remains open to suggestions. "This is a process," he said. "If there’s other ideas on how to improve the concept while achieving the concept and the savings, we’re certainly ready and willing to listen."

Now is the time for lawmakers and stakeholders to present their own ideas, Coriell said.

"For those who kind of feel left out in the process, this is the time in the process that they have to present new ideas," he said. "The one piece that’s not negotiable is that we have to achieve the savings and we have to meet the outcomes outlined in the legislation."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com


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