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VIT Struggles To Disassemble As Deadlines To Close Loom

Hilary Niles
With weeks to go till Vermont Interactive Technologies is set to close, stakeholders are struggling to figure out who owns what resources, and who will pay to house them.

There's an old adage that, "it takes money to make money." A group of policymakers and community stakeholders is finding out it sometimes costs money to save money, too.

That's only one of many conundrums facing a group of people trying to figure out what to do with Vermont Interactive Technologies after its funding runs out at the end of the year.

Vermont Interactive Technologies is a network of 17 video-conferencing sites around the state where people participate in classes, public hearings and other meetings around Vermont or around the world, by only traveling to the nearest VIT studio. The state has invested about $22 million since 1988 to build VIT.

Last spring, in a move that appeared to save $800,000 a year, the governor and lawmakers agreed to eliminate it by the end of 2015.

But it may not be so simple, according to John Sayles. He is a member of the VIT Coordinating Council, and a separate, three-person committee looking at restructuring government to be more efficient.

"Whether in the long-run this really is saving money for the state, in the big picture, is questionable," Sayles says.

Sayles is also on a special working group the Legislature created last year to recommend how to transition out of the VIT model for video conferencing services, while still providing the service to Vermonters.

Sayles questions the ultimate savings because VIT's biggest client, Vermont State Colleges, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with an alternative.

But VSC's platform won't be available for everyone, so the working group is proposing a new pared-back system - with less functionality and virtually no staff to run it - that will cost about $150,000 a year to maintain. The working group is also recommending the Legislature pay someone $100,000 just to move VIT's decommissioned equipment, and another $100,000 to salvage still valuable equipment and move it to new sites.

Cost aside, this is tricky. The money won't come through for weeks or months - if ever - and new sites aren't yet confirmed. But VIT needs to move most of its studios by Dec. 31.

There's also a question of just whom the equipment belongs to. State law makes it clear that's a decision for lawmakers to ponder when they reconvene in January. But Vermont State Colleges, where several VIT studios are located, want the equipment out by the end of the year, so they can put their own systems in place.

Jim Porter, telecommunications director with the state's Department of Public Service, is ready for the state to hire a contractor to move the equipment either to the sites that will house the new system, or to a warehouse until it's sold off.

But there's still not an identified site for the new program in Chittenden County, none of the other sites have yet committed, and none of the arrangements can be confirmed until the Legislature signs off on a plan.

Barbara Grimes chairs the VIT Coordinating Council, which oversees the organization. The council assumes the state will ultimately take ownership. To that end, the Council has asked the state to take responsibility for moving and securing the equipment as soon as VIT runs its last program on Dec. 18. But, Grimes says she thinks it's premature to put the equipment into operation until ownership is clear and VIT is officially dissolved.

"You've got no appropriation, you've got no authority to move the equipment, and you've got no provision to take care of the public hearing element of what VIT could do." - Stephen Whitaker, longtime telecom and IT advocate

Stephen Whitaker, a longtime telecom and IT advocate who has followed the VIT developments closely, agrees. And he thinks the complex systems that tie together VIT's 3,000-some parts is not well enough documented to dismantle correctly.

At the working group's final official meeting on Tuesday, Whitaker also cautioned against moving forward with a plan that's not funded.

"You're building on sand here," he said.

Disjointed logistics aside, he thinks the proposed, self-serve video conference model will not be adequate for holding effective public hearings.

"You've got no appropriation, you've got no authority to move the equipment, and you've got no provision to take care of the public hearing element of what VIT could do," Whitaker testified during the public comment period of the work group's final official meeting.

Whitaker floated his own proposal for keeping VIT functional through the legislative session using $100,000 in emergency funding.

The working group's final recommendations are due Dec. 1.

Hilary is an independent investigative reporter, data journalism consultant and researcher based in Montpelier. She specializes in telling stories of how public policy shapes people's daily lives.
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