NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency has rejected the town’s request for reimbursement of about $4 million in emergency work following Tropical Storm Irene, potentially leaving local taxpayers on the hook for the bill.
Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd and Planning Director Daniel Monks said town officials learned of the FEMA rejection on Thursday. They said work completed on the Roaring Branch, known as emergency protective work, has been deemed to be ineligible for reimbursement. The rejection came as a shock because FEMA regulations given to the town, and FEMA officials themselves, had led the town to believe the work would be at least partially reimbursed, they said.
"To say that we’re surprised is an understatement. There are no reasons expressed in that notification, which is a little shocking as well, given the amount of documentation we presented to them. We don’t even have any basis for their denial," Monks said.
However, Monks said officials with the state’s Irene Recovery Office have been told that it appears to be an inter-agency battle between FEMA and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Monks said the work, totaling $3.98 million, is eligible for reimbursement by FEMA under federal statute, but FEMA has an agency policy that NRCS should cover such expenses.
According to Monks, the NRCS had no funding when Tropical Storm Irene hit late last August, ruling the group out as an option for the town to seek assistance from. Additionally, NRCS will not reimburse for work already completed, according to Monks. "We never received any written response about possible work they could do until April 2012," he said.
The storm dropped excessive rain on the area, creating raging flood waters in local rivers. The swift-moving water in the Roaring Branch, like other rivers, eroded the banks and brought earth, trees and other debris downriver. Some debris became lodged under bridges, threatening several spans in Bennington. The force of the river also redirected the river channel and impacting levees, putting some homes and businesses at risk. Immediate work was required to ensure safety, according to town officials.
Shortly after the storm, the Select Board signed off on seeking a $5 million line of credit from People’s United Bank so emergency protective work could begin. Monks said the town knew there was a risk that funding may not be available for the work done inside the river, including removing sediment and debris, armoring the bank and stabilizing a levee.
"It is a risk that we knew going into it. We made the determination that it was absolutely necessary, regardless of whether funding was available or not. We didn’t make the decision regarding emergency protective measures and the health and safety of our citizens based on whether or not we could get the money from the federal government. We did it because we thought it was absolutely necessary to protect the health and welfare of this community," Monks said. "That being said, once we made the determination and we started the work, when we did read through the regulations carefully, and when we did consult with FEMA and the state and our consultants, they all agreed that it was eligible work."
Hurd said town officials had little doubt that at least some of the money spent by the town on the emergency river work would be coming back from FEMA.
"Almost from day one, when we started attending FEMA seminars, this whole process, it was clear under the regulations that we were being provided that emergency protective measures and debris removal and all of those things were eligible opportunities," he said. "There were times in this 11-month period where we came out of these meetings with very positive feelings that, ‘We’re headed in the right direction now, we’re going to be OK.’ And the turnaround here has been very swift. Basically, it’s been this month."
The town must pay back the $5 million emergency bond to People’s United. If the FEMA rejection stands, the town will have to seek voter approval, probably on the March 2013 ballot, for a 20-year bond from a bank or the state’s bond bank, Hurd said. That would add about 2 cents to the town’s general fund tax rate, he said.
The town will appeal FEMA’s decision, despite no real indication from the agency about why the original request was denied. Monks said the state is supporting the town in its effort to recoup costs.
"We have the full support of the Irene Recovery Office, the Shumlin administration and all three of the congressional legislative delegation," he said. "We feel that the risk is worth taking, the extra effort and possible little extra funding."
Town officials will meet next week with state recovery office personnel and the attorney general’s office to discuss a strategy for the appeal. The town must appeal first to the state, then, if the state finds merit in the appeal, it will be sent on to FEMA headquarters with a state recommendation.
Sue Minter, head of the state Irene Recovery Office, said Friday that her office is already promising state approval and help with convincing FEMA to reverse course.
"We know the town will appeal to us and we plan to support that appeal and we’re going to begin investigating what the best strategy is," she said. "We are not standing down. It’s very frustrating. It is a huge disappointment."
Minter said FEMA policies appear to be geared toward flooding events in other parts of the country and not for the type of flooding that Vermont towns experienced as a result of Irene.
"We feel that FEMA’s program and policies may be more relevant for a flood of a different sort, such as the Midwest, when it floods for several days," Minter said. "In our case, this was an erosion. It happened very quickly. Our towns had no choice but to work immediately to protect the public."
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, was among a group of lawmakers that received an update Friday on FEMA funding. He said lawmakers were extremely disappointed by the funding FEMA has offered for the state office hospital and office complex in Waterbury. Lawmakers also thought funding assistance would be available to towns, he said.
"I think everybody expected that at least some of it would be covered by the feds," he said about FEMA’s rejection of Bennington’s request. "It’s extremely disappointing. My expectation is the town will appeal it and we as a state will fight right behind them. This would be right on to the property taxpayer."