BRATTLEBORO -- Brattleboro Retreat officials are wondering what might happen to their plan to renovate space at the Retreat for State Hospital patients after FEMA announced Friday that Vermont might not receive up to $120 million it was counting on to replace the damaged State Hospital in Waterbury.
Deputy Administration Secretary Michael Clasen told the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee last week that FEMA is now saying that Vermont could receive less federal funding than legislators were counting on when plans were made to build a new 25-bed psychiatric hospital in Berlin and renovate smaller psychiatric hospitals around the state to accommodate Vermont's most acute mentally ill patients.
Work has already begun at the Retreat, which is planning on about $5.3 million in federal and state money for the work.
Peter Albert, Retreat senior vice president for Government Relations, said Friday's announcement took everyone by surprise and the Retreat, and all of the other stakeholders in the ongoing Vermont State Hospital project, are trying to figure out where to go from here.
"It seems as though no one is clear to what extent this is going to affect the project," Albert said Monday. "Right now everyone is scrambling to find answers."
The Retreat has been caring for State Hospital patients since Aug. 29, after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Waterbury hospital and patients arrived in Brattleboro on an emergency basis.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers finally came up with a plan to replace the 54-bed Waterbury hospital, which includes renovating space at the Retreat and at Rutland Regional Medical Center.
The state was also counting on the FEMA money to rebuild office buildings in Waterbury that were damaged in the storm, and both plans relied heavily on the FEMA money.
At the Statehouse hearing Friday, Clasen told lawmakers that while the money has not been completely take off of the table, the state might have to begin thinking about alternative funding sources or changing the plans.
"We have recently learned that the information provided previously was not correct," Clasen told the Joint Fiscal Committee. "We're now in a position where there is less certainty regarding how much FEMA will participate in funding both the state hospital and the Waterbury state office complex."
The three members of Vermont's Congressional delegation vowed Monday to help the state get the FEMA funding that it believes was promised to it.
"Sen. Leahy, Sen. Sanders and Congressman Welch will continue to work with the state and with FEMA to ensure that Vermont is properly reimbursed for all its eligible projects," the three lawmakers said in a joint statement.
Department of Buildings and General Services Commissioner Michael Obuchowski said he expected to get a clearer answer from FEMA within three to four weeks on the agency's high and low projections for funding the Waterbury project.
He said work at the Retreat can continue while the funding is in question, though he said lawmakers ultimately will have to come up with a plan if the federal money is cut off.
"At some point lawmakers will have to put all the pieces on the table and look at the long term costs and the long term benefits and at what Vermonters can afford," Obuchowski said. "Then we'll have to make a decision and stick with it and implement it."
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said the state has had to slow down on its work at the office complex, but he said work at the Retreat, and at other State Hospital sites, will continue.
Spaulding said FEMA, for now, is asking the state to be patient while its officials tour the Waterbury complex and decide if the reconstruction costs associated with Tropical Storm Irene can be covered by the federal disaster relief program.
"Right now there has been no formal rejection," Spaulding said. "For right now they are asking us to go along this way and we going to follow them to see where it goes. Right now we are not talking about alternatives because we are working toward a ‘yes' and not a ‘no.'"
According to Albert, the FEMA money was supposed to cover 90 percent of the costs associated with the state hospital construction at the Retreat, with the state covering the additional 10 percent.
The Retreat recently received its emergency Certificate of Need, which allowed the hospital to move forward with the renovations.
Demolition has begun on Tyler 4, the Retreat building where the state hospital patients will eventually receive care, Albert said.
He said work will continue in Brattleboro, for now, while lawmakers and state officials get a clearer sense on how much FEMA money will be available, and what might happen if the funding is significantly cut.
"Everyone was counting on that FEMA funding and now we're going to have to circle back and see if that plan is viable and what this means," said Albert. "The State has been a great partner through all of this and I don't see them backing away from taking care of the acutely mentally ill patients. But the FEMA announcement certainly throws a lot of things into question. I think we are as concerned as everybody."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 279.