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Alderman candidate finds errors in refugee panel’s letter

By   /   January 11, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

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FACT CHECKER: Gail Johnson, candidate for Rutland City Board of Aldermen, says she found errors and misrepresented facts in USCRI’s refugee letter to the board.

Gail Johnson, a Rutland resident and Board of Aldermen hopeful, likes to confirm her facts. This practice grew out of necessity when, as a U.S. Navy finance officer, she was in charge of payroll for an entire naval base in Charleston, S.C.

Now, a member of the Rutland Housing Authority commission, Johnson continues to fact check. “Whatever I say or do, I have proof. I back it up. I expect others to do that as well,” she said.

Johnson never thought she would find discrepancies in a letter by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) to the Rutland Board of Aldermen, but she did.

“I expected to look up references and find the same numbers. That’s not what I found,” she said.

In October, the Board of Aldermen sent a letter to USCRI, asking for justification of Rutland’s selection as a refugee relocation site. The agency still has not released the original grant application, which is supposed to spell out in detail Rutland’s suitability. Instead, USCRI CEO Lavinia Limon responded to the board in December, sending a letter that cited numbers of available jobs and housing.

Limon said that, as of Nov. 28, 2016, The Vermont Housing Data showed “284 housing units available for rent in Rutland City.”

However, when Watchdog checked the site on Jan. 11, only 23 housing locations are listed in Rutland City. Of those listed, none have availability.

Johnson noted that the 284 figure could be a result of expanded search parameters, to potentially place refugees in rent-to-buy situations, homes or condos. However, USCRI only places refugees in apartment rentals.

“Funds are very limited,” said USCRI Albany, N.Y., Housing Coordinator Jake Slutzky. “There’s no way to get them into a lease-to-buy situation.”

Boaz Mingki, USCRI housing coordinator in Des Moines, Iowa, told Watchdog that, “We only place them in apartment rentals.”

Johnston found other incorrect figures from additional cited sources: 258 jobs rather than Limon’s 285, and eight apartments rather than the 80 referenced in the letter.

“You could chalk those up to typos. But as someone who works with numbers, typos like this make me doubt the reliability of their data,” Johnson said.

When asked if the data errors could be intentional, Johnson said, “I’m just presenting the facts of what I’ve found. I’ll let others make that determination.”

Even when numbers are correct, they aren’t as rosy as USCRI would have Vermonters believe, Johnson said.

Vermont Job Link currently shows 225 jobs available within 10 miles of Rutland. However, only 60 have the minimum requirement of a high school diploma and, of those, only 40 are full-time.

Limon states that Vermont’s 3.3 percent unemployment rate is positive, but Johnson said that number doesn’t present a realistic picture of Vermont’s economy.

She says a more accurate source is the Vermont Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims. Rutland represents a little more than 10 percent of the state’s total claims, and the number of claims has been increasing in the last few months, from 368 weekly claims on Nov. 19, 2016, to 579 claims on Dec. 31, 2016.

“I think it speaks well for Ms. Johnson,” said William Notte, chairman of the Board of Aldermen, who reviewed Johnson’s findings. “The entire process requires diligence, whether you think Rutland is better or worse because of refugees. “

Johnson, who earned a second master’s degree specializing in conflict analysis and peace operations, said she is both a part of the international community and an economist.

“I’ve worked with people from many backgrounds. I’ve studied Arabic. Refugee settlement is a wonderful humanitarian effort,” she said.

But she said she becomes concerned when settlement agencies claim refugees will be beneficial to Rutland’s economy.

“They say that bringing in refugees is good for our economic recovery. I don’t know that that’s the solution. What I do know, in a bigger sense, is that the logic behind improving our economic recovery in Rutland by bringing in low-income people to generate business, it’s not a logical economic model,” she said.

Instead, Johnson contends, Rutland’s unemployment and lack of affordable housing makes bringing low-income refugee families into the city counterproductive from an economic standpoint.

“Economic logic drives economic recovery. I hope decision-makers defer to economic predictions when making these decisions,” she said.

The first of the 100 Syrian refugees are slated to arrive in Rutland this month. USCRI and Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program members have been meeting with local non-profit and government agencies in preparation for their arrival.

Notte said the board had recently received an email telling them everything was on schedule. All 100 refugees are not supposed to arrive at one time, according to USCRI. Integrating a few families a month should help caseworkers obtain housing and jobs for incoming families. However, with President-elect Donald Trump threatening to halt refugee resettlement from Syria, USCRI may try to bring more families in at once.

USCRI did not respond to Watchdog’s requests for comment on Limon’s letter.

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Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter. She has written for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, two of Vermont’s largest newspapers, and her work has published in The Washington Times, FoxNews.com and a number of local Vermont newspapers. She is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Emma is always looking for new stories. Readers are encouraged to contact her with tips and story ideas.