Gov. Phil Scott on Monday said he remains wary of a short-term financial injection to save three college campuses that are facing closure.
During a wide-ranging press conference, Scott said he welcomed a one-week delay of a vote to close Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College's Randolph campus. But he warned that Vermont's state college system, which has struggled with budget woes since before the COVID-19 pandemic, is only the first institution that will be asking for financial relief in the coming months.
"Additional money - this isn’t just for this one single instance - it's, 'What do we do in the future?" Scott said at his thrice-weekly press conference in Montpelier. "This injection of dollars, at this point in time, isn’t going to fix the long-term problem [the Vermont State Colleges] are facing."
State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding on Friday announced the closure plan to address a budget gap of up to $10 million. The board that oversees the college system was scheduled to vote on the plan today, but backed off as opposition mounted over the weekend from legislative leaders and the public.
At the press conference, Scott said Spaulding was a "little swift," in announcing the closure plan just three days before the scheduled vote. And the governor directly opposed one facet of the plan. Spaulding proposes to close VTC's Randolph campus and fold its operations into the VTC Williston campus. Scott said he would prefer to close the Williston campus, which sits in the heart of relatively prosperous Chittenden County, in order to preserve the Randolph campus in rural Orange County.
“If we're going to invest money, I'd rather see a Chittenden County operation closed and [us] trying to do whatever we can to keep the other rural campuses open," Scott said. "I'm of the mindset that we should be focusing on what we can do to help the rural parts of the state, because Chittenden County is doing OK right now."
The press conference came as the state took the first tentative steps in reopening the economy, allowing one- or two-person crews to work outdoors or in unoccupied buildings starting Monday. The governor said he hoped to announce the lifting of additional restrictions every week on Fridays, but cautioned, "if we see an uptick, we may back off."
The Health Department recorded just four new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing Vermont's tally to 816 cases. Thirty eight people have died, and 24 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.
"Almost 100%," of Vermont deaths have been people aged 60 or older, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said.
Levine reiterated his recent comments that Vermont may have already experienced a peak far less severe than initially feared.
"The slope of the curve has really changed," Levine said.
State officials offered other bits of good news. Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling said that earlier fears that the pandemic could prompt an increase in suicides and domestic violence incidents have, so far, been unfounded.
And Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the state has plenty of available hospital beds.
"We are in very good shape," Smith said.
Scott announced that 100 new workers - 50 from other branches of state government, and 50 from a private contractor - are taking calls to process unemployment claims at the Department of Labor. There are now 150 people answering claims calls, compared to 15 before the pandemic, officials said. The state is now processing 7,000 to 12,000 claims a day. Vermont still has a backlog of more than 8,000 unemployment claims, which prompted the state to take the unusual step of issuing those claimants checks today before processing their claims.
The state has implemented a hiring freeze, Secretary of Administration Susanne Young said, with exceptions for those positions deemed critical to the pandemic response.
Scott, who has often criticized President Donald Trump, revealed that he and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu had a phone conversation with Vice President Mike Pence a couple weeks ago, when Vermont was on the verge of running out of testing equipment. The federal government sent additional testing equipment, Scott said, though he did not provide specifics.
"They helped us out in our time of need," Scott said of the federal government.
But Scott made clear that NVU and VTC are just the first of many institutions that could be closed due to budget constraints, and the state will be unable to save them all.
“No one is going to be left untouched as a result of this pandemic," he said, later adding, "We’re concerned about every fund, every source of revenue. We’re seeing this across the board."