I’ve got a post sitting on the backburner called “We Have No Idea How Well State Government Performs.” The thesis is that Vermont’s government is woefully deficient in checks and balances. The Legislature is too slammed to do any green eyeshade stuff. The executive branch provides the bulk of the available information. The Joint Fiscal Office does some useful things and so does the auditor, but their reach is limited.
So we’ll probably never know who’s responsible for the monumental screwup with the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program (VERAP). It’s out of money, folks. Rental assistance will diminish in a month and disappear entirely for thousands of households before the onset of winter. Oh, and utility assistance will end before the calendar turns to 2023.
According to the administration’s own numbers, 3,015 recipients will see their rental benefits end on September 30. Another 5,400 will get reduced benefits through the end of November, and then nothing.
The explanations on offer are threadbare, sheepish and inadequate. There are broad hints of administrative malfeasance.
This ought to be a scandal. Will it be? Based on past performance, probably not.
Here’s how administration officials explained things. Doug Farnham, deputy secretary of the Agency of Administration:
“The reason that everyone’s finding out about this now is that we didn’t have the data. We didn’t have the actual spending recorded to really update our projections to know we were going to run out of money before the end of the winter.
“We didn’t have the data,” says the number-two guy at the agency responsible for, y’know, having the data.
The person responsible for overseeing the program, Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson, looked like she was making a hostage video as she recited these lines:
“We’re now at a different phase of managing the COVID-19 pandemic as Vermonters are back at work — businesses are open at this time. The funds used to manage the emergency are beginning to run out.”
Yeah, see, there’s no problem at all. Please ignore the state’s 2.5% vacancy rate for rental housing. And definitely ignore Chittenden County’s 0.4% vacancy rate. Please ignore this:
“There are so many people who are in extremely desperate situations,” said Jessica Hyman, associate director for housing advocacy programs at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, which runs a statewide hotline for tenants.
Aww, desperate schmesperate. It’s simple, says the person in charge of helping the vulnerable. Businesses are open! Go get yourself a job.
For those who can’t afford market rates, there are no alternatives. “There will be mass evictions in this state,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel. “They have had years to create a plan, years to make an actual plan, not just to throw money at the problem.”
And now they can’t even throw money because they don’t have any.
But never fear, help is on the way! DCF commissioner Sean Brown told VTDigger “he hoped to have a proposal ‘ready to go’ once the Legislature reconvenes in January.” Great.
There is no reason whatsoever for them not to have known this months earlier. Do they not keep budgets at VERAP? Do they not know how to analyze trends? The program’s end was inevitable; it’s one of the countless consequences of the end of federal Covid assistance.
But not to have a plan. To have figured this out so late that, instead of providing the smoothest possible offramp for recipients, they’re just putting up a brick wall.
How will the Legislature respond? If they had the resources, they could tear apart VERAP’s administration and budgeting and identify the source of this self-imposed crisis. But they don’t have the resources. They might hold a hearing or two at which administration officials will give mealy-mouthed explanations and lawmakers will voice heartfelt expressions of concern.
Heck, that’s already started. House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem For Now Becca Balint issued a joint statement appreciating “the administration’s efforts to prioritize funding” and saying, Susan Collins-style, that they “are very concerned” that the changes were made without consulting stakeholders.
Not to inject politics into it, but c’mon. It’s election season. Krowinski and Balint are in the party that’s trying to defeat Gov. Phil Scott. This was a golden opportunity to blast his administration’s failure. “How in hell did they not realize this sooner? They could have come to us in the spring and worked out a better plan.” Krowinski and Balint’s tepid words don’t inspire confidence that the Legislature will do anything more than help the administration resolve a crisis of its own making.
Because they “didn’t have the data.” They “didn’t have the actual spending recorded.”
What? How? Is this state government, or a hastily-arranged garage sale?