MONTPELIER, VT (AP) Vermont’s new transportation secretary, heading up an agency rocked by one big highway project doubling in cost and another being halted by a federal judge, has given two top managers their walking papers.
“We’re taking a new look at transportation,” said Dawn Terrill, who was appointed to her post in November. “We need new eyes and new approaches.
“We need to move faster and more efficiently,” she said Wednesday, Jan. 12.
Terrill asked for the resignations of David Scott, director of program development, and Michelle Penca, the director of finance and administration. They left on Jan. 21 and their deputies will take over on an acting basis.
Terrill, formerly deputy secretary at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, replaced Patricia McDonald, who became commissioner of Employment and Training.
A message left at Penca’s home seeking comment wasn’t immediately returned. Scott said, “The secretary’s looking to move in different directions with new priorities. She’s looking for her folks to be in there.
“It’s part of the job,” Scott said. “You accept a politically appointed position and this happens.”
Also under review: Consolidating the state’s nine regional highway maintenance districts into six. A key lawmaker said two of those closing would be in Newport and Berlin, and a Transportation Agency spokesman said the third likely would be in southern Vermont.
The shake-up follows a tough year for the agency. April brought the news that the estimated cost of the Bennington Bypass’ northern leg had doubled, to just shy of $100 million. In May, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions halted construction on the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway at the request of environmental groups.
Terrill’s spokesman, Ian Grossman, said he would “not point to any individual project” as prompting the departures of Scott and Penca. But he said, “One of the secretary’s goals in moving the agency forward is to modernize program development so that we have more projects on time and on budget.”
Program development, which has been Scott’s area, is the agency division responsible for planning projects and bringing them to fruition.
Grossman said another goal for Terrill is “modernizing the financial system and enhancing the skills in the financial area so that we have accurate, on-time financial information.”
The agency has been faulted in annual reports by the auditor of accounts because it has not had its financial management computer system integrated with one that began operation in most of state government in 2001.
Grossman said he wasn’t sure if the agency would try to integrate the systems. “We certainly want to be integrated into the state system as much as possible,” Grossman said. “But we have unique challenges with having to operate with federal programs as well as state programs.”
Approximately a third of Vermont’s $359-million transportation budget comes from federal funds. Much of the rest is raised in fuel taxes.
News that the cost estimate for the Bennington Bypass’ northern leg had doubled came late in last year’s legislative session and, coupled with increasing cost estimates for the Circ, angered some lawmakers.
Terrill said her agency faces “tremendous funding challenges.” She said the information the agency provided lawmakers on those challenges had been “inconsistent.”
“We’re looking for a consistent, reliable process so everybody is better informed about what we’re trying to accomplish and why, and how we’re going to go about it with a limited budget,” she said.
It was uncertain Jan. 12 how the changes in top agency management would be greeted by lawmakers. Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Chittenden-Grand Isle and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Scott and Penca were “two people in the agency who were highly respected and worked hard.”
Mazza said he was well aware of the agency’s money troubles. But he said he hoped the departures of Scott and Penca were not just an effort to save money by dismissing two senior employees.
“I really don’t know what the advantages are,” he said. “I’m skeptical. I don’t know if it’s cost-cutting or building efficiencies. If it’s efficiencies, okay. If it’s cost-cutting, I’m concerned.”
Of the possible district office closings, Mazza said, “My concern is maintenance. That’s got to be priority one.”
Grossman said there would be no reduction in front-line personnel like snowplow drivers. “We’re looking at administrative efficiencies,” he said.