Commentary: Move state government out of Montpelier into rural VT

Covid-19 has shown that state workers don’t need their Montpelier-Waterbury office buildings. Why not ‘spread the wealth’ and take advantage of the strengths of Vermont’s regions?

by Matt Krauss

I worked for Vermont state government for over thirty years; in five different communities and from my home. Much of state government, its departments and agencies, are largely based in a few Vermont locales. I have come to believe that there are real advantages, potential savings, efficiencies, and synergies to gain by relocating selected state agencies and departments to other Vermont counties and communities. 

Given the daunting financial situation facing state government it’s the right time to reimagine new homes for some parts of state government. We are being challenged to do more with less. Every opportunity to save money and work more collaboratively needs to be explored. After all aren’t we asking small businesses, non-profits, and families to do the same by re-inventing themselves? 

For example, Franklin and Addison counties have a long and deep history rooted in agricultural pursuits. Their experience with various products provides a valuable perspective to the challenges facing modern agricultural and food businesses. They have weathered constant changes, up, and down, for many decades. They could offer dividends to the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets if it was located in their county. Those benefits aren’t available now because the agency is located in the middle of downtown Montpelier some distance from agricultural pursuits. 

How about considering the sparsely populated Northeast Kingdom counties of Essex, Orleans, or Caledonia as the new home for the Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation (FPR)? After all the Kingdom is home to huge tracts of forest land, a multitude of VAST trails, moose hunting, mountain biking, hiking, logging and forest products. And Newport City is exploring new recreational opportunities for ATV’s. There are numerous collaborative opportunities available in the Kingdom to help FPR achieve its goals. 

The southern Vermont counties of Windham, Bennington, Windsor, and Rutland have long complained that they have been forgotten by, and divorced from, state government. They are unable to access the jobs and all services of state government. Why not give them an opportunity to compete for state departments befitting their strengths? Brattleboro is home to the State of Vermonts’ preeminent mental health facility, The Brattleboro Retreat. The Department of Mental Health (DMH) is tiny part of the large Waterbury complex. Wouldn’t the DMH benefit from being co-located with the Retreat and it’s world famous mental health staff and treatment modalities? 

I live in Stowe, a community synonymous with four season tourism. It has world class skiing, fine bars serving local craft beers, top restaurants, and a history of accommodating the worlds visitors. I think hosting the Department of Tourism and Marketing in Stowe would offer synergies advantageous to the citizens of this state. There is a wealth of national and international contacts here, cutting edge ideas, creative tourist related activities, and real talent in the travel and marketing world. It possesses a robust tourism infrastructure in a very dynamic environment that would compliment the departments needs for tourism research, etc.

Vermonters are proud and rightly so of their environmental reputation. How many counties might offer a convincing presentation to house the Department of Environmental Conservation? I wonder what their submissions might reveal and offer their fellow Vermonters. 

How would this process work? To minimize any political chicanery, it should be open, transparent, and measurable. There would be three determining categories. Let’s call the first section, “tangibles”. This would include measurable savings to Vermont from any move. Let counties or specific communities make a presentation outlining how the state, its employees, and Vermont’s citizens would benefit measured against predetermined criteria. The second category might be described as “intangibles”. Let them fashion their narrative outlining intangible assets like new resources and connections, fresh ideas, original paradigms to old department challenges, and innovative partnerships. And finally, the third category must include state employees comments, suggestions, and ideas for any new hosting arrangement. Let the Administration or a select panel rate and render a decision on each presentation.

COVID-19 has changed how state government operates. And state government has demonstrated that it can successfully work in new ways, use new technology, and operate remotely from distant locations. Let’s awaken the competitive and creative minds in Vermont by re-examining the location of state government agencies and departments.

Photo: Anson Tebbetts, Secretary of Agency of Agricultural, Food and Markets, at work out in the field. Could all of state government work more effectively and with more benefit to local communities if government offices were dispersed around the state?

Matt Krauss, of Stowe, is a happily retired state employee and a former Vermont legislator.

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