New information on how the City of Rutland came to be the future home of 100 Syrian refugees. Mayor Chris Louras made the announcement nearly two weeks ago, and many were shocked at the speed of the process.
While the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP) held meetings as far back as January 14, the general public was never informed.
The January 14 meeting included members of the VRRP, Mayor Chris Louras, Rutland City Alderman President William Notte, state refugee coordinators, and a member of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link group.
Through a public records request filed by Local 22 & Local 44 with the City of Rutland, we learned a public meeting was considered, but didn’t happen for fear of negative comments by city taxpayers.
“This is just the beginning, it’s a historic moment for us as the Refugee Program and I think it’s a historic moment in Vermont,” said Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. She hopes Rutland is the first of many communities to consider welcoming refugees.
While the city’s mayor and many others say they are excited about the process, other elected officials and members of the public say they felt blindsided.
“My initial reaction was I wanted more information,” said City Alderman Ed Larson in an April 28 interview. He didn’t learn of the plan until a day before the mayor’s announcement.
According to public records we obtained from the City of Rutland, a public discussion was considered, but never took place.
In an April 14 email to Mayor Louras, Merdzanovic wrote “if we open it up to anybody and everybody, all sorts of people will come out of the woodwork, anti-immigrant… anti-anything.”
Local 22 & Local 44 reporter Rene Thibault asked: “Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?”
“I think we did the right thing, in this work, you’re going to offend people, whether you include them or not include them, you’re going to offend them, so sometimes you just have to make that hard decision,” responded Merdzanovic.
The email went on to suggest that if a meeting were to be held, it should be controlled, and include groups like the United Way and area Churches. But both United way and Rutland area church leaders told us they welcome the refugees, but were not contacted to be part of a discussion during the planning process.
Merdzanovic says Rutland was one of nearly 10 communities in Vermont that contacted her about refugee resettlement. The others include Morrisville, St. Albans, Warren and Waitsfield, Middlebury, Woodstock, Brattleboro and Bennington.
She says the list of towns was another factor in why the public wasn’t initially told.
“In the end we had to say no to other communities. We didn’t want to build expectations and stir emotions then have to go back to the community and say no, we’re not going to move forward,” answered Merdzanovic.
Another email correspondence indicated there may have been misinformation shared with other groups like the Vermont Department of Labor (DOL), one employee initially thought refugees were coming within 30 days of the April 10 email. Department of Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan said that’s not the case.
Since the April 26 announcement, some in the community have voiced concerns with whether or not Rutland has the capacity and services to support another 100 people. Noonan says when it comes to jobs and job training, the answer is yes.
“Those costs will not fall to the local community. That is something the Department of Labor, which is 93 percent Federally funded, those dollars are available right now,” said Noonan.
Noonan says there were no concerns on her end about Mayor Louras’ plan. She says her Department has programs and services already in place to help these refugees train and find jobs quickly. She says the DOL works every day to identify jobs throughout the state.
“The folks that we have worked with an assisted who’ve come here are eager to work, they have a very good work ethic. Many are well educated and well skilled,” Noonan added.
Merdzanovic notes resettlement has been happening in Chittenden County for 30 years, and she believes people are used to it. She understands it will take time in Rutland, and adds no matter what, things are moving forward.
“Our government invites refugees to come into the United States and to come to Vermont. we don’t control it, we don’t vote on it luckily,” said Merdzanovic.
Local 22/Local 44 also filed a public records request with the Vermont Agency of Human Services, which also oversees the state refugee program.