NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Senior Staff Writer
BENNINGTON -- The federal government has determined preliminarily that it will pay just $1.55 million of the $3.9 million the town spent on emergency work in the Roaring Branch in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, according to town officials.
Bennington Planning Director Daniel Monks received word Thursday evening of the preliminary decision rendered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The town had been waiting about 21 months to find out if it would be reimbursed.
Bennington can now accept the decision or appeal. An appeal is the most likely course of action, said Monks, who will now huddle with state officials and Vermont's congressional delegation to determine how best to proceed. An appeal will be reviewed at the regional level and then FEMA headquarters in Washington.
"We think the science is behind us," he said.
FEMA initially denied the town's request for reimbursement last year, claiming the work should be funded by another agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency backed off that position in December, however, after the state's united congressional delegation intervened, keeping the door open for the town to recoup costs.
Sen. Patrick Leahy met briefly last month with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department oversees FEMA, to push Bennington's cause. Monks said Leahy called Bennington Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd Thursday night and "assured him that he is going to continue to fight for full funding and that he was not happy with FEMA."
"Not happy is an understatement," Monks said. "He did indicate to (Hurd) that he would have another chat with Napolitano."
The town submitted extensive information about the work it completed after the storm. Monks said removing debris and fortifying the banks was determined to be necessary to protect the public and was recommended by a river scientist under contract with the town.
"We didn't just do this willy nilly," Monks said. "We weren't cowboys in the river."
Monks sent a strongly-worded email Friday morning to the Select Board and other town officials to inform them of the development. He wrote that FEMA has subjected the town to "unusual, extraordinary and intense scrutiny" over its funding request.
"Despite the copious documentation presented by State and local officials, FEMA has steadfastly refused to consider the conclusion and judgments of State and Town scientists and engineers with decades of experience with rivers in Vermont. Instead, FEMA has chosen to rely upon the opinions of FEMA bureaucrats without experience or technical expertise in river science, let alone Vermont-specific river science," he wrote.
FEMA has agreed to fully fund removal of woody debris that had collected against bridges. However, the agency did not fund most of the work the town did to remove sediment from the river, or work done to fortify the river bank with rock.
FEMA rejected all funding for repairs to a flood wall that sustained damage, which the town determined at the time of the storm could not wait weeks or months for repairs.
The town should have a strong appeal because FEMA provided no reasoning for the rejection of funds, Monks said.
"The reason why I'm confident is because I don't see any scientific basis articulated why they have denied the majority of the funding for that particular endeavor," he said.
FEMA has yet to complete an "environmental and historic preservation review," so the decisions remains preliminary, Monks said. The amount the town receives from FEMA could still go up or down based on the review, Monks said.
Vermont's congressional delegation -- Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch -- issued a statement acknowledging FEMA's decisions to overturn its initial rejection. However, the partial funding is disappointing, they said.
"Twenty months after Tropical Storm Irene caused millions in damage to the town of Bennington, FEMA has finally offered help. We are pleased that the agency responded to our request to reconsider its earlier refusal to reimburse the town for any work it undertook to protect property and infrastructure in the wake of the disaster," they wrote. "The determination of $1,579,952 in eligibility for $3,454,000 in debris removal costs, however, is disappointing. We will continue to advocate with the town of Bennington and the state of Vermont to assure the town receives all the support for which it is eligible."
Ben Rose, the state's Irene recovery officer, said rejection of funds for the flood wall was expected, and an appeal had already been prepared.
"We sort of anticipated that. We worked with the town to develop an appeal which will now be tweaked in light of what FEMA said in their decisions. But, essentially, that appeal is ready to go," he said.
So far, the town has spent "a couple thousand dollars" on consultant fees. Utilizing state experts has helped to control costs. Continuing to seek additional funding from FEMA makes sense for the town, Monks said.
"We just think that science is going to prevail," Monks said.
The town also continues to receive complete support from state officials and the congressional delegation.
"I think if we didn't have a reasonable chance of success the state and legislative delegation would have told us a long time ago, ‘You know what, guys? We're going to do the best we can for you, but this is a loser.' We've never had that," Monks said.
Rose said the town stands a good chance of improving the outcome by pushing for more funding.
"This really still does come down to a science. This is going to come down to who has the river science on their side, and I've been very impressed with Bennington's work," he said. "We're working with the town to support getting the best outcome we can. We've already seen that you shouldn't always take no for an answer. FEMA's system is complicated and sometimes folks working at the (regional level) are hesitant to say yes on something that is in the gray area."
The 2014 fiscal year budget includes funding for payment on interest for the money the town borrowed to fund the emergency work. Monks said the town will have to consider bonding during the next budget season to pay down the principal balance on the line of credit secured by the town.
The towns of Woodford and Rockingham have also been waiting for similar decisions from FEMA. Rose said Friday that FEMA is expected to offer a decision to those towns next week.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami