Another View: Report reveals flaws in Vermont's remote-worker program

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A new report by State Auditor Doug Hoffer strongly suggests that if Vermont's much-touted remote-worker program is not exactly squandering taxpayer dollars, neither is it spending them prudently.

That comes as no surprise to those who were skeptical in the first place of the whole notion of paying people to move to the Green Mountain State, but Hoffer pinpoints a key structural weakness in the program that must be rectified if the Legislature decides to extend it when it expires.

The program was created by the Legislature in 2018 as part of the state's strategy to bolster its economy and counteract its aging population demographic. The intent is to encourage people who use a computer to work remotely from their place of employment to move to Vermont.

To accomplish this, it offers to reimburse certain expenses incurred by those workers in making the move, such as relocation costs, computer hardware and software acquisition, broadband access and upgrades, and memberships in co-working spaces.

Successful applicants can receive grants of up to $5,000 from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which administers the program.

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So far, $400,000 of the $500,000 originally authorized has been spent to reimburse 112 recipients, resulting in a population gain of 290, according to Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein.

Hoffer studied a sample of 68 awards and concluded that in adhering to the Legislature's intent to "keep (the program) simple and get the money out the door," the agency made "numerous questionable choices" in awarding the grants and failed to interpret consistently the program's guidelines.

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For example, the program paid for one recipient to install a 100-yard underground conduit for broadband cable as well as for post-installation landscaping. Three recipients purchased in total three high-definition monitors, an office printer, an iPad Pro, an iMac desktop, and one Alienware Aurora high-performance gaming desktop. The program also paid for home internet bills, including a prepaid year of high-speed internet and router rental for one grantee.

The agency, however, did not verify that the costs were actually necessary for the recipients to perform their employment duties. So the taxpayers ended up subsidizing a higher standard of living for entire households who had access to the broadband service and hardware that the state paid for.

That's certainly problematic, but it pales in comparison with the structural flaw in the program, which is that it requires applicants to provide proof of residency before they apply for grants. Hoffer points out that this means that they have already made the major financial and life-changing decision to move to Vermont before knowing they will receive grants to defray expenses. This in turn demonstrates that they already had the motivation and means to become Vermonters without any enticements from the state.

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Moreover, the program does not require those applying to attest to the fact that they would not have come but for the incentive the state offered. Hoffer reviewed surveys and applications filled out by recipients and concluded that the prospect of reimbursements was, at best, a minor incentive for moving to Vermont and at worst, "the grants were gifts to those who would have moved here regardless of financial incentives."

The Legislature can try to fix these shortcomings if it decides to continue the program, but all sorts of economic development efforts are plagued by the fact that it is enormously hard to determine if a particular incentive plays the decisive role, whether in a company's decision to expand in or relocate to a state or in an individual's decision to make a home there.

The survey data examined by Hoffer showed that for the grant recipients he studied, 74 percent were influenced by access to outdoor recreation and nature, and 66 percent by having a safe place to live and raise a family. Moreover, 74 percent had previously vacationed in the state.

We tend to think that a better approach than grants would be to let the state sell itself through its natural beauty and the lifestyle it affords, while investing in the social infrastructure that would make the state more livable for old residents and new, including affordable housing, child care, higher education, health care and broadband internet.

— Valley News, White River Junction, Nov. 16


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