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Vt. Lawmakers Call New Office Space Project’s $9M Estimate Eye-Popping

"This is much more involved than anyone had anticipated," said Rep. Alice Emmons.

Wed May 08, 2013 - Northeast Edition

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) New office space for some Vermont state agencies is being described as gorgeous but its cost as eye-popping.

Vermont lawmakers use those terms for the new space at the National Life building in Montpelier that has been renovated to house the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and other state agencies.

Members of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, which oversees state building projects, said they were given a rough estimate last year of about $2 million to move the Natural Resources Agency into the building that already housed the transportation and commerce agencies.

The most recent figure is now $8.65 million — and that’s not a final number.

Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, whose agency includes the Department of Buildings and General Services, which managed the project, said March 18 that he and his aides never told the committee the National Life project would cost $2 million.

Last year, the Legislature included $1 million for the project and separate allocations for replacing other office space in Waterbury lost by Tropical Storm Irene and for replacing the Vermont State Hospital. The allocation was included in the state’s capital construction budget, which uses money raised through bonding to pay for building projects.

Spaulding called the early amounts "placeholders." But some committee members still find the latest price tag troubling.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said she saw a pattern in which BGS officials "get us to commit to a project and then come back later and say we need more ... We end up being kind of played, kind of manipulated, kind of trapped," she said.

Getting off the elevator, a visitor steps into a reception area featuring a curved wall with paneling made of horizontal rectangles of locally sourced hardwood. Sunlight flows through the space.

New office cubicles have low walls for better visibility and collaboration among workers. Smaller, glass-walled conference rooms are scattered throughout the space to afford workers more privacy. "White noise" is used to mute any distracting noises.

National Life chipped in $3.5 million for the project, but will charge the state an average $3.7 million a year in lease costs over the next 10 years.

A list of costs from the Department of Buildings and General Services shows the state spending nearly twice last year’s early estimate just on modular furniture: $3.675 million. And that didn’t include $1.4 million on new walls, $600,000 on carpeting, or $100,000 for a "transition manager," whose job was to help state employees get familiar with their new surroundings.

"Once you start getting into the renovations, it’s like ’Oh, my God, this is much more involved than anyone had anticipated,’" said Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield and chairwoman of the House committee.

The storm in August 2011 triggered the project. The Agency of Natural Resources, known as ANR, was one of several state agencies that lost its offices when the Winooski River inundated the state office in Waterbury.

During storm recovery, Gov. Peter Shumlin touted the collaboration between ANR and the Agency of Transportation as they worked on permitting and rebuilding roads and restoring gouged river beds.

Shumlin said he wanted that collaboration to be the new norm. ANR would move into the National Life building, which already housed the Agency of Transportation and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

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