Flood of red ink: Vt. town meeting reports awash in recovery bills
Kevin O'Connor / Staff Photo The town of Eden looks anything but in its storm-documenting annual report, while Lincoln first-grader Nate Howell shares a drawing titled "I Am Excavator" on his community's cover.
The three-member Select Board in Halifax, population 728, notes some good news: A past fiscal year surplus of $41,556. And some bad: The hamlet faces a $4 million bill for Tropical Storm Irene road repairs — five times its annual municipal budget — with no word expected for months on whether or what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will offer to help.
The story is similar in Bethel, population 2,030: Last summer the small town felt the weight of seven more years of loan payments on its $235,000 John Deere six-wheel-drive grader. Then Irene damaged 60 of its 70 miles of local highway and destroyed the machinery that powers its wells and wastewater treatment plant, loading on another $5 million in debt.
From northernmost Alburgh to southernmost Vernon, flip through most any Vermont town meeting report this season and you’ll find last year’s wild weather overwhelming any savings this mild winter.
“Starting early in December of 2010 the snow started falling and never stopped until April,” road foreman John Bull writes in Ferrisburgh, population 2,775. “Spring brought all the snowmelt flowing toward Lake Champlain and its tributaries to depths far exceeding any records in history. By the time Tropical Storm Irene hit …”
Dozens of communities with 2011 disaster bills are still waiting to learn if federal and state governments will approve financial aid. Halifax and Bethel are two of many towns borrowing money on multi-month lines of credit until they can determine how much local taxpayers will owe. The shared challenge is how to pay for costly repairs yet not drown homeowners and businesses already wading in red ink.
“We have all been affected by Tropical Storm Irene financially in one way or another, so it was the Select Board’s pledge this year to present the voters with a level funded budget,” write leaders in Wilmington, population 1,876, the Vermont town hit hardest last Aug. 28 with more than $13 million in damage.
‘Very high price’
In Mendon, population 1,059, nearly a foot of rain washed out Route 4 and side roads, resulting in some $3 million in damage. To fund repairs, the town is joining countless others in applying for 75 percent federal and 15 percent state disaster reimbursement with hopes of ultimately paying only 10 percent.
But completing the required paperwork takes time. Crews in Pomfret, population 904, worked 3,700 hours not only to repair 50 of its 62 miles of road but also to document the Irene damage with 2,000 pages of applications and upward of 10,000 photos.
“FEMA considers each damage site on a road as a separate project, therefore we have 40 projects,” Pomfret leaders write. “Each project requires approximately 50 pages of paperwork. We have assurances and promises and a lot of paid bills that need to be reimbursed. We still have not received a single penny.”
Almost 50 communities are borrowing money while they determine how to pay off repair bills, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Those with loans of $1 million or more include Bennington, Bethel, Braintree, Chester, Duxbury, Grafton, Halifax, Killington, Moretown, Plymouth, Newfane, Rochester, Roxbury, Royalton, Stockbridge, Westminster, Wheelock and Woodstock.
“Our costs to date are approaching a million dollars, and we expect another half million to fully achieve recovery,” writes the three-member Select Board in Barnard, population 947. “Needless to say, we have emptied the town’s coffers. While we’re grateful for what will eventually be generous FEMA and state reimbursement, the process is an education we could have done without.”
Fletcher, population 1,277, watched snow flatten its town garage and spring rain flood its roads. Local leaders were waiting for a federal decision on aid for the first half of 2011 when Irene hit.
“During the week we finished this report, the reimbursement number from the state and FEMA went from $427,000 to $350,000 and then to $408,000,” the Fletcher Select Board writes. “As of early February, we are still awaiting compensation.”
Strafford, population 1,098, is one of the few Vermont communities to receive its first Irene check — albeit for $995 of what could total $1.7 million in damage.
“Reimbursement from FEMA comes at a very high price in terms of time spent documenting every expense, determining where every load of gravel was placed and calculating how many hours of labor and equipment time was devoted to each and every site,” the Strafford Select Board writes. “This documentation process still goes on and will continue into summer.”
Adds the Select Board in Stockbridge, population 736, which was $80,000 under budget the day before Irene socked it with $4 million in bills: “We are concerned with the slow turnaround time from FEMA and that we may have difficulty meeting our obligations in a timely manner if the cash flow does not improve.”
And the interim town manager in Killington, population 811, which reports $2.7 million in repairs: “The unfortunate truth is we won’t know how much support to count on until checks are in hand.”
Some municipalities are turning to town meeting for help.
Barnard’s ballot features a $100,000 request to start a “dedicated flood recovery fund.”
Waitsfield, population 1,719, is asking for a $400,000 loan to help cover $260,000 in May flood damage and $188,000 in Irene repairs.
Sharon, population 1,502, has a two-part plan to deal with more than $1.5 million in flooded highway: Its Select Board not only has hired a fourth full-time road worker but also will ask voters for an additional $20,000 to gradually pay off what federal and state aid won’t.
Grafton, population 679, is requesting a $1 million bond to help cover $5.2 million in Irene work, including repair of 45 of the town’s 55 miles of road and replacement of its destroyed garage.
Hartford, population 9,952, wants a bond for $1,135,225 to replace the storm-damaged Quechee Covered Bridge over the Ottauquechee River and another for $500,000 to reconstruct its flooded West Hartford Library.
But with most communities waiting for federal aid before requesting local money, storm damage is more easily confirmed in other parts of their annual reports. A quarter of the 246 city and town booklets on file at the Vermont secretary of state’s office feature covers illustrating rushing water, ravaged pavement or, in the case of Weston, population 566, costumes drying outside its Playhouse.
Danby, population 1,311, notes how it marked its 250th anniversary — “the most wondrous celebration that Danby ever hosted” — the day before Irene washed away the new town historical society at the old home of the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Pearl Buck.
In Mount Holly, population 1,237, Jeff Teter — road foreman and father of Olympic gold-medal snowboarder Hannah Teter — shares a photo of “where Trip Pearce had wisely chained his tractor to a tree anticipating the floodwaters and winds of Irene.”
Bethel seventh-graders present a page titled, “‘Grab Your Toothbrush And A Flashlight! We’re Headed To the Neighbors!’ Stories of Irene, the Great Vermont Flood of August 2011.”
Pittsfield, population 546, goes 74 pages better, turning its report into a photo album of its post-storm “island” days without a single road, power or phone connection to the rest of the world.
Some communities, spared by the weather, nonetheless report reverberations. Shelburne, population 7,144, donated its 1984 military surplus truck to hard-hit Roxbury, population 691. Dover, population 1,124, spent $20,000 to assist waterlogged business owners in neighboring Wilmington.
A few towns focused on other things: Report covers picture the new Lake Champlain Bridge in Addison and 298 Cadillacs that last year earned a Guinness World Record for largest parade of such cars in Barton, birthplace of the make’s founder.
But overall, storm clouds loomed large everywhere. In Londonderry, population 1,769, flooding added to volunteer constables’ annual list of problems: “People riding dirt bikes up and down Lowell Lake Road; 1 dog bite; 2 nuisance dogs; Shut down roads due to Hurricane Irene.”
Strafford, anticipating 90 percent federal and state aid, sees a silver lining.
“Mother Nature,” local leaders write, “finds the weaknesses in our system of infrastructure and forces us to construct more appropriate replacements and make more durable repairs. We are, in effect, able through this recovery effort to invest nearly $1.7 million in upgrades at 10 cents on the dollar.”
Tell that to Roxbury, which, after “near record snowfall” and “the worst mud season in recent memory” (“exceptional rain events followed”) faced Irene damage so devastating, it needed until December to reopen the last bridge still closed in the state.
“The main road was impassable in both directions, getting in or out of town was difficult, the power was out for many days, the fish hatchery was decimated and the school could not open,” local leaders write.
Then again, “Neighbors helped from as close as Braintree and as far away as Quebec. The fire department put on a couple of nice picnics to boot.” And because of past budget flukes and frugality, the town ended its last fiscal year with a $38,600 surplus — just enough to pay the interest on its weather line of credit.
kevin.oconnor@ rutlandherald.comMORE IN Vermont News
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