NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The town and state have succeeded in changing federal policy in a quest to receive reimbursement for work following Tropical Storm Irene, but it remains unclear if the change will allow local taxpayers to recoup the $4 million price tag, according to a state official.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and the state's congressional delegation touted progress last month when the Federal Emergency Management Agency changed course and acknowledged it was responsible for work the town completed in the Roaring Branch immediately following the storm.
Flood waters from the storm created a safety hazard by amassing debris under bridges and altering the river channel. The town began working immediately after the storm on debris removal and other "emergency protective measures." But FEMA claimed the work should be funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and rejected the town's request for reimbursement.
The offices of U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch met with FEMA officials in Washington, which resulted in the policy change, said Sue Minter, the state's Irene Recovery Officer. FEMA has removed NRCS from the guidelines, she said.
As written, however, it is unclear if the new guidelines can retroactively help Bennington, as well as Woodford and Rockingham, which face similar problems.
"Something pretty significant occurred, which is that FEMA redeveloped their whole policy regarding debris removal," Minter said. "The next thing we received was new policy guidance, per that meeting. However, that effective date for that new policy is going to be great for (Hurricane) Sandy. It's going to be effective for October 2012."
Congressional staffers are continuing to work with FEMA to determine how Bennington should proceed, Minter said. "While we see a positive change in FEMA policy, we don't know if it will affect us," she said. "It's been like this for eight months. We're trying to stay optimistic and be a positive partner and hope that this is going to work out."
In response to an inquiry from the Banner, FEMA issued a statement Thursday confirming the policy change. However, no decision has been made on whether the work the town has completed will be covered. Further review is needed because of the future impact to the federal government.
"FEMA is still researching the applicability of emergency protective measures with respect to debris removal from streams connected with Tropical Storm Irene," the statement reads. "This is a complex policy question with national implications for FEMA as well as other federal agencies, and therefore the Agency did not take its responsibilities lightly."
The statement also promised to deliver the maximum amount in reimbursement allowed under the policy to the town and state. "FEMA remains committed to supporting Vermont's recovery to the fullest extent possible and in a timely fashion. FEMA also remains committed to providing the State of Vermont and its communities impacted by Tropical Storm Irene with the maximum reimbursement for expenses to which they are eligible for," the state said.
Meanwhile, the state is waiting to file an appeal with FEMA on Bennington's behalf until there is clarification on whether the new policy will include Bennington's claims stemming from Irene. The appeal period from the rejection will expire during the second week of December, according to Minter.
"We are watching very carefully the appeals clock that is also ticking," she said.
A spokesman for Sanders said the congressional delegation remains engaged in the issue and is seeking a resolution. However, Hurricane Sandy, which slammed New York and New Jersey two weeks ago, will likely delay a final determination.
Bennington Planning Director Daniel Monks said the policy change, if it includes Bennington's claim, would boost the town's case. But FEMA will still look carefully at the work completed by the town, and the documentation, he said.
"The policy issue is only the next step in convincing FEMA to fund the work the town has done. To be clear -- we are not guaranteed a check even if the policy issue is resolved in our favor. It will, however, be a significant step in the right direction and I am confident the state and the congressional delegation will continue to support the town," Monks said.