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Vt. legislators want 'sick' office building closed, not refurbished

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Associated Press / December 30, 2007

BENNINGTON, Vt. - State legislators from Bennington say they will push the state to close an office building that employees say is making them sick, not refurbish it.

A bill by Senator Robert Hartwell calls for the state to sell or demolish the Bennington State Office Building and buy, lease, or build a new one.

Hartwell, a Democrat, drafted the legislation after Governor Jim Douglas's administration announced that it plans to return workers to the building once remedial work is completed.

The building was closed last March after six current or former employees were diagnosed with sarcoidosis and others complained of respiratory ailments.

Sarcoidosis is an inflammation characterized by granulomas, or groups of inflamed cells. The disorder is commonly found in the lungs.

The commissioner of the state Department of Buildings and General Services, Gerry Myers, told workers at a meeting earlier this month that the state plans to clean and renovate the building rather than build a new one.

According to Myers and state Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt, the state Department of Health and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have determined that it can be made safe.

For the state, the problem is that building a new structure would cost much more than the renovation.

Implementing the measures suggested by an environmental testing firm would cost $9.6 million, but estimates on the cost of a new building are as high as $18 million.

A task force commissioned by the Legislature to explore a possible new building downtown is expected to file a report by Jan. 15.

"The issue is going to be where are they going to find the money," said Representative Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr., Republican of Bennington.

He said Hartwell's bill probably won't clear the Senate, but that he is likely to support it if it does.

Hartwell has secured the support of Senator Dick Sears, an influential Democrat, and plans to lobby House members for their support.

"I suspect that when we look at this carefully, we will discover that the cost of redoing the existing building to make it as safe as possible is going to cost as much as a new building," he said.

Myers said Friday that the legislation is Hartwell's prerogative, but that the facts of the situation haven't changed.

"We have a fiscal responsibility to everybody in the state of Vermont," Myers said. "We believe it's in the best interest of the taxpayers at the best price."

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