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USDA Program Aims to Help Towns Access Federal Disaster Relief

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MONTPELIER — As head of the Center for an Agricultural Economy in the Northeast Kingdom, Sarah Waring was surprised by the number of rules the federal government had for a grant to build a simple wooden pavilion in a park in Hardwick. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told staff, “‘oh, but you actually need to separate the design from the build. And you actually need to have three procurements that are fair,’” and other rules to protect taxpayers dollars, Waring said. 

Waring is now the state director of the USDA’s Rural Development office, which announced a new pilot program on Wednesday designed to help Vermont communities clear hurdles to get federal funds.  

The $1 million program is geared toward helping municipalities access disaster relief aid that would otherwise be left on the table due to the lack of expertise, staff time or local government systems, Waring said.

About half of Vermont municipalities have no career professionals in their administration and instead rely on volunteers and part-timers, said Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Brady said his organization fielded hundreds of phone calls from municipal workers in the wake of the July 2023 flooding. Many were concerned about how to make sure they qualified for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance funding. 

“These are questions like, ‘what contracting rules do I need to follow when I hire the person to grade the road or get that dump truck?’” Brady said. 

More than $37 million has been distributed so far in Public Assistance grants for the July 2023 floods, according to FEMA’s website. It’s unclear how many municipalities or projects are still waiting for approval.  

The new grant, administered through the League of Cities and Towns, would allow VLCT to hire a full-time specialist to train local officials in finance and governance. Brady’s also hoping to find more experienced clerks or account managers who can “go on the road” to share their wisdom. 

Waring thanked Vermont officials for their advocacy for the project, particularly the office of Gov. Phil Scott and Chief Recovery Officer Doug Farnham. Brady added that Sen. Peter Welch and Rep. Becca Balint helped push the program to the top. 

Waring noted with pride that the Hardwick pavilion survived the flooding intact. “I’m glad we followed all the engineering and architectural reviews that we had to go through,” she said. “It’s really sturdy, it’s built like a Viking beer hall.”

Erin Petenko, Sarah Mearhoff and Shaun Robinson VT Digger

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