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Vermont Senate moves to create disaster mitigation fund, but putting money in is another decision

Several empty seats line two rows of desks with papers on them.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
The Vermont Senate approved a major disaster response bill Tuesday, sending it through to the Vermont House. The legislation would create the Community Resilience and Disaster Mitigation Fund, but currently, no money has been allocated for it.

The Vermont Senate approved legislation Tuesday that would create a new statewide fund to help municipalities prepare for natural disasters — but it’s still unclear when, or if, towns and cities will benefit from the program.

Creation of the Community Resilience and Disaster Mitigation Fund is one of the signature provisions in a major disaster response bill, called S.310, that was approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

Lawmakers, however, have yet to decide if they’ll allocate any money for the fund.

Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the proposed new program will be competing for the same limited financial resources as other proposed initiatives, such as increased funding for public safety and mental health.

“So the … appropriations will be prioritized and considered within all the areas of spending that we have to accommodate within the budget that we’re developing for [the fiscal year 2025 budget],” Kitchel said Tuesday.

Also unfunded as of now are the five new positions the bill seeks to create to improve the state’s local response to natural disasters. Windsor County Sen. Becca White said last week that the positions, to be housed at Vermont Emergency Management, would improve the state’s local response to future natural disasters.

 First responders stand next to black boats in a flooded downtown street
David Littlefield
Vermont Public
First responders continue rescue operations in flooded downtown Montpelier on July 11, 2023.

“When you’re on the ground and you’re in a stressful natural disaster situation, you want to have a go-to person,” White said. “This would give [Vermont Emergency Management] the staff and capacity to actually have that, and also to have people who can build connections throughout the year to make sure they are in a position to field complex questions when a natural disaster hits, with trust built between local and state partners.”

The legislation would also designate municipal public works employees as first responders. White said the protection and repair of storm and wastewater systems during major flooding events is a critical public safety activity. And she noted that the two Vermonters who died during Tropical Storm Irene were public works employees who lost their lives in the line of duty.

“Just like firefighters, their family, their spouses deserve the health benefits that we provide to other first responders,” White said.

The bill, which now heads to the Vermont House, would also require Vermont Emergency Management to update its statewide emergency preparedness plan every five years, and increase financial support for search-and-rescue teams.

“While we all rely on friends and neighbors and community organizations during times of emergency, it is the government that has the resources and the reach to have the greatest impact,” said Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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