Poor options over state offices

Since Gov. Peter Shumlin first speculated about the future of the state office complex in Waterbury in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, I was intrigued by the possibility of state government rethinking how it provides services to the residents … aka does its job.

One of the first lessons I learned in the aftermath of the big storm is how completely dependent the southwest corner of the state is on Route 107, when it comes time to access state government. That would be the same Route 107 that was the last road opened in the storm’s wake; the same Route 107 that is a difficult drive even in the best of weather.

And Shumlin — like Jim Douglas before him — has spent no end of energy discussing how the entire state needs to be electronically connected. The argument is that we can attract businesses of all stripes anywhere in Vermont if we offer a sturdy broadband backbone. A good example of putting that in practice would be spreading some of the 1,500 jobs from a floodplain in Waterbury to other locations around the state.

Over the past couple of years, Vermont’s government has debated cutting its physical presence in the hinterlands (ie, not in the Burlington-Montpelier corridor). So when the discussion of moving some of the offices from Waterbury, I was hoping for a discussion of the opportunities to decentralize state government; to move some of the head office functions for various departments around Vermont, relying like many private businesses on conference calls and cloud technology. Surely there are some parts of Vermont government that would be better off with more jobs being done at remote locations and fewer in head office?

More to the point: It would have government rely on remote communication the way the state hopes businesses that locate/relocate here will, so when the economic development folks talk to prospective business owners here they can discuss remote access to head office knowledgably, instead of walking them up and down the centralized corridors of power. That means working with a laptop and a cell phone and relying on cloud technology instead of sitting in meetings in a conference room, but getting back a leaner, more responsive central office in order to spend a larger percentage of money on field staff instead of front office staff and a big building …

But the debate seems to have become simply whether Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon will succeed at poaching some of the jobs a few miles down the I-89 corridor … into downtown Barre, where Lauzon is the leading property developer. No conflict of interest there. While that may be a fine thing for Lauzon “Barre,” it leaves the rest of the state as cut off as ever.

It seems we really didn’t learn so much from Irene as we like to pretend we did. Disappointing.

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