Nothing New Under the Sun

In case you thought the unhousing of Vermonters from a motel shelter program was a new thing, VTDigger comes along with a history lesson that manages to deepen my anger at and understanding of our current situation. It seems that we went through the exact same thing only 10 years ago.

And apparently we didn’t learn a damn thing, because we’re doing it again.

The circumstances were different, but the outcome was the same. Funding for an emergency motel voucher program was cut, and a large cohort was suddenly tossed out on the street. Some were given tents and sleeping bags in lieu of actual shelter.

One big difference between now and then: The Democrats ran the roost. They held the governorship as well as the Legislature, and they still managed to screw our most vulnerable. That sheds some light on the capacity of today’s Democratic leaders to defund the program and accept the consequences. They’ve done it before, so why not now?

Continue reading

Agency of Digital Services: High Promise, Low Performance

Gov. Phil Scott’s reputation as a sound manager of state government took another hit last week — well, it should have taken another hit — with the publication of Auditor Doug Hoffer’s report on the Agency of Digital Services (downloadable here). In short, Hoffer examined six major IT projects and found that only one was completed on time and under budget. He also found that five the six had such “poorly defined measures” that it was difficult to determine success or failure, and that there were “limited efforts or plans” to ensure the new systems met expectations. That’s, um, not good.

The agency was a centerpiece of the then-newly elected governor’s “overall strategy for modernizing state government.” Scott unveiled ADS in mid-January 2017, just days after his inauguration, as a way to unify and streamline what had been a scattered information technology effort. Hoffer’s audit suggests that the agency has fallen far short of Scott’s promise.

It reminds me of Scott’s much-touted commitment to “lean management.” You may not remember that phrase because it’s been years since he uttered those words, but during his first run for governor he said “lean management” just as often as he said “cradle to career,” “affordability,” or “protecting the most vulnerable.” And he promised that in his first year in office, lean management would save one penny for every dollar spent by the state — or about $55 million in total.

Which never materialized, at all, not even close. That’s why you never hear him talking about it anymore.

Continue reading

The Veto King Reaches Another Milestone

Renowned nice guy Gov. Phil Scott has made history — again — by vetoing yet another bill. According to the Vermont State Archives, Scott’s veto of the legislative pay raise bill was the 40th of his administration.

Scott is the first Vermont governor to reach 40, just as he was the first to reach 35, and 30, and 25, and 22. The previous record holder was Howard Dean, who vetoed 21 bills in his 12 years in office. Scott has nearly doubled that total in only seven legislative sessions. And he might rack up another one or two before the books close on the 2023 Legislature.

The State Archives list 184 veto messages by Vermont governors. The first one happened in 1839, when Gov. S.H. Jenison vetoed a bill to establish the Memphremagog Literary and Theological Seminary. Phil Scott is now responsible for 21.7% of all the vetoes in state history. He’s only occupied the office for 2.9% of the time that Vermont has had a governor.

The Scott apologists in the audience may be thinking “Well, of course he’s vetoed a lot of bills. He’s a Republican facing a Democratic Legislature.” Sure, but (a) he’s supposedly a moderate and (b) he’s an extreme outlier by any standard. Jim Douglas had a very contentious relationship with the Legislature, and yet he vetoed only 19 bills in his four full terms in office. He averaged less than two and a half vetoes per year. Scott is averaging almost eight.

Continue reading

With Every Passing Day, Vermont’s Disgrace Gets Worse

Day Two of The Great Unhousing passed with far less fanfare than Day One, but the human toll was just as high and the consequences just as shameful. Our area of central Vermont was hit by a tremendous rainstorm yesterday afternoon, and I had to wonder how many of the newly-unhoused were being thoroughly soaked and their possessions destroyed by the downpour. Too bad the state’s “Adverse Weather Policy” is only designed to minimize the number of people who actually freeze to death. Dangerous heat and severe storms? Eh, that’s okay, I guess.

(The image above is taken from a video posted on Twitter by Brenda Siegel. I used a screenshot where the person’s face is obscured because I want to be illustrative without being exploitive. We do need to be reminded of the humanity behind the statistics and the policy debates without reducing our fellow Vermonters to political props. I appreciate Siegel continuing to bear witness; somebody’s got to.)

There was little media coverage on Day Two because there wasn’t anything “new,” just another day of unnecessary misery. Just another day when people who were living on the edge come closer to falling over. Just another day when the bland professions of our political class ring hollow. Heck, the only thing that’s got them hot and bothered is a bit of vandalism on their doorsteps.

At this moment I have a hard time ginning up any outrage on their behalf. We’d all like to feel secure in our homes, and I understand that. It’s just that some people don’t have homes at all, and our leaders played an active role in making that happen.

Continue reading

It’s Impossible, Except That It’s Not

Now that a judge has tossed a spear into the chest of those who hoped to prevent The Great Unhousing, the next political step will be the upcoming veto override session in the Legislature, scheduled for June 20-22. The House and Senate will be trying, among other things, to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the FY2024 budget.

They should have a comfortable margin of victory, but 17 Democratic/Progressive lawmakers have promised to vote against override of any budget that doesn’t extend the motel voucher program and build an offramp to better housing solutions. This week, I’ve had two conversations that shed contradictory light on the pending budget debate: One cast doubt on the very idea of reopening the budget, while the other basically called bullshit on the first.

Scenario number one. The budget override attempt will be an up-or-down vote on the budget as adopted by the House and Senate. No changes allowed. That wouldn’t prevent leadership from negotiating with the 17 between now and then, but they couldn’t amend the budget before the vote. The best they could do is craft a Plan B to expedite the process after an override failure.

Now, let’s assume the override fails. At that point, the power swings to Gov. Phil Scott. Counterintuitive, but here’s why.

Continue reading

Day One: Not as Immediately Disastrous as Feared, But Needlessly Chaotic and Destructive

I won’t try to convince you that I hate to say “I told you so,” but it’s true that I hate to have to tell you I told you so. Way back on March 26, when legislative leaders were assuring us that the end of the motel voucher program was being prepared for, that there’s no way we’d actually leave thousands of Vermonters without shelter, I wrote this:

When we see pictures of mass evictions, stories about struggling Vermonters suddenly tossed into the void, and coverage of human service providers despairing at the chasm between demand and supply, the Democrats will not be able to shirk responsibility for it.

Well, today was Day One of The Great Unhousing, and our print and broadcast media are full of stories about people having nowhere to go and pictures of desolate evictees surrounded by their possessions. VTDigger: a distraught young woman sits on a curb with hastily-packed items in bags on the pavement and no idea where she’s going. The Bennington Banner: an older woman loads her belongings into her car, where she’s planning to sleep into the indefinite future. WCAX: a young man says he’s “probably [sleeping] in the street.” Channel 22/44: A young mother says “we don’t know what’s next” and “it’s terrifying.” WPTZ: A middle-aged man talks of “reaching out to friends, seeing if anyone has a room available.” The Rutland Herald: Small towns in Rutland County struggle to prepare for a possible influx of the unhoused. Vermont Public: an outreach worker in Burlington describes a demand for tents, cooking supplies, and other necessities of outdoor living.

Oh, and also on Vermont Public: vaunted nice guy Gov. Phil Scott talks of how “some choose to maybe set up a tent somewhere.”

“Choose.” As if they were given a choice. Good God.

Continue reading

“The Court Is Not Persuaded”

Nice try, Vermont Legal Aid, but the judge tossed you out of court. And in a nice little development, essentially blamed legislative Democrats for enabling the abrupt end of the motel voucher program. On we go with the unhousing!

Judge Timothy Tomasi rejected VLA’s request for an injunction halting the evictions scheduled to begin today (under a nice hot 90-degree sun). He saw little chance that VLA would succeed in its case, hence there were no grounds to stop the process pending a full hearing in court. This, despite the fact that Tomasi’s decision included the sentence: “The Court agrees that removing persons from their rightful homes and subjecting them to homelessness is an irreparable harm.”

Mighty white of him to notice, but gosh darn it, their particular “irreparable harm” doesn’t have a judicial remedy according to Tomasi.

I had a feeling the judge would find a way around Legal Aid’s argument. Standing in the way of a government action isn’t something the courts take lightly. (Unless we’re talking the John Roberts Supreme Court, of course.) His decision is still a big disappointment since VLA seemed to have strong arguments. But the judge found reason to ignore those arguments, thanks in large part to the Legislature. Yay, Democrats!

Continue reading

Putting a Price Tag on The Great Unhousing

Remember what I’ve written about the cost of ending the motel voucher program being higher than the cost of keeping it going? And i mean the purely financial cost, leaving aside the moral dimension of unhousing 80% of Vermont’s homeless.

Well, here’s a nice real-life example. The city of Barre has offered the use of its B.O.R. Arena as a shelter space for the next three months.

For a price.

Specifically $29,025 a day.

That’s what the state of Vermont would have to pay the city to use the Arena as a shelter, according to City Manager Nick Storellicastro.

At that rate, a fully-occupied Arena shelter would cost about $125 per household — which is a bit lower than what the state is paying right now per motel room, but quite a bit higher than the figure offered by former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel, who says motel operators are willing to accept $100 per day.

And that $125 does not include the cost of 24/7 staffing, which Storellicastro is not offering to provide.

This ought to make everyone think twice about the sheer financial wisdom of ending the voucher program. It puts the state and municipalities in a sheer scramble to accommodate people, and that usually results in wasted time, energy, and money.

Continue reading

Now Comes Vermont Legal Aid

Even as the first round of The Great Unhousing is literally just around the corner, Vermont Legal Aid has stepped in with a class-action lawsuit seeking to force an extension of the motel voucher program. And to judge from the complaint filed in Washington County Court, it may well win this thing because of the Scott administration’s sheer incompetence in operating the program.

VLA sued on behalf of five voucher clients plus “other similarly situated,” presumably meaning the 1,800 households due to lose their shelter at the end of this month, next month, or possibly late July. (The administration has announced a four-week extension for some of those scheduled to lose eligibility on July 1, but can’t even specify how many will qualify for an extension. Sloppy, no?)

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, where VLA will seek an injunction blocking the state from evicting any voucher clients and force the state to follow due process from here on.

At first glance, I thought this was kind of a Hail Mary. After all, can’t a government decide to terminate a program? But the complaint (downloadable here) paints a picture of managerial ineptitude pervasive enough to provide a basis for court action. Assuming VLA’s complaint is accurate, and they don’t have the reputation of making stuff up for the hell of it.

And boy, wouldn’t it be ironic, don’tcha think, if Team Scott was forced to continue the program because it made a complete hash of the process?

Continue reading

Further Adventures in “Slum Management”

The pace of news continues at breakneck speed on our developing and self-inflicted dehousing crisis. This installment’s title is courtesy of Barre Mayor John Hemmerick, whose city is desperately trying to plan for the first installment of The Great Dehousing, which is now only a couple of days away.

In central Vermont, two charities have combined to raise over $15,000 (the goal is $20K; chip in here if you can) for tents and sleeping bags and such to distribute to the soon-to-be-unsheltered. The city of Montpelier is looking into a possible winter shelter at the city’s Recreation Center, and Barre is hoping to offer shelter at the Barre Auditorium. The problem there is not so much setting it up, as staffing it. The city doesn’t have the means, and local shelter operators are already doing everything they can.

Both cities are discussing the seemingly inevitable encampments that will follow Our Great Leaders’ decision to end the motel voucher program that provides shelter to 80% of Vermont’s unhoused. Mayor Hemmerick offered this comment to The Bridge:

It is a sad day in America and Vermont when tiny municipal governments must look to … informal settlement and slum management policies to do the unthinkable in the wealthiest nation on earth: sanction substandard encampments and living conditions.

Slum management, folks. That’s where we’re at in good old caring old Vermont.

Continue reading