Len Emery Photo
Bill Labadie directs the position of a hydraulic jack while working on the Bartonsville Covered Bridge on Thursday.
BELLOWS FALLS — The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has taken the “cover” off its covered bridge insurance policy.
In a reversal of its policy that was giving the town of Rockingham a bad case of financial heartburn, the organization has reversed course and decided its insurance policy covers not only just the “cover” of the Bartonsville Covered Bridge, but the entire bridge.
The 141-year-old bridge was swept away by floodwater from Tropical Storm Irene last year, and its demise, which was caught on videotape, quickly became one of the most iconic images of the devastating storm.
At one point in the insurance dispute, the town had accused the league of “snake-oil tactics” and of turning its back on its loyal member towns in their time of need.
But under its new interpretation of its 25-year-old policy, the league has now paid slightly more than $1 million toward the rebuilding of the historic Bartonsville Covered Bridge, the full amount of the town’s insurance policy. The bridge will cost $2.5 million to fully replace and is already under construction.
Steven Jeffrey, longtime executive director of the league, said Thursday the decision will also affect a claim filed with the league by the town of Woodstock, which also saw its Taftsville Covered Bridge severely damaged during Irene. The Taftsville bridge is still closed.
“We will now cover covered bridges, abutment to abutment,” Jeffrey said, who added that the league provided insurance for 80 covered and pedestrian bridges, with towns selecting their own level of coverage.
Regular roads and bridges are not included in insurance policies because of sovereign immunity issues, he said.
Jeffrey, accompanied by three league insurance officials, brought a check for $199,000 to the Rockingham Select Board last week, after an earlier check was sent in late August for $750,000.
The league had originally only offered the town $190,000 on a $1 million policy the town had on the bridge, which is one of three covered bridges in town, all of which were damaged by Irene and insured by the town with the league’s property and casualty inter-municipal fund program.
Jeffrey said the reversal wasn’t a case of bowing to political pressure, but a realization that the league would probably lose in court.
He said after Rockingham had protested the $190,000 payment, the league sent the 400-page policy for review to its attorney, and also to the corporate counsel for the league’s reinsurance firm.
Both said the wording of the policy was so vague the league would probably lose in court against Rockingham, he said.
Rockinghan Town Manager Tim Cullenen said Thursday the league had paid the town a total of $1,079,000 toward the Bartonsville bridge, which included $123,000 for removal of the bridge debris from a field downstream.
“This is all great, but it’s not going to cover the actual cost, but we knew that from the get-go,” said Cullenen, who had been town manager for about four months when Irene hit.
“We had a lot of different conversations with the league, and each time it went up,” said Cullenen.
The town was so frustrated with the league in late August that it issued a statement highly critical of the league.
“At one point last week, they told us the payment would only be $241,810 and to get the rest from FEMA, and as an added insult told us they would pay back three years of prorated insurance premiums,” said Thomas MacPhee, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, in a statement during the town’s Aug. 28 Irene commemoration at the site of the new bridge.
“This is snake-oil tactics and from an outfit that is supposed to be a partner in running municipalities,” he said.
MacPhee at the time urged other towns to re-examine their insurance policies with the league and get quotes from other insurance companies. MacPhee couldn’t be reached Thursday.
Jeffrey said the coverage of covered bridge hadn’t come up since the league’s insurance pool started covering bridges.
“It’s the first time in the 20 years that this issue has come up,” he said.
“We’ve learned that no two covered bridges are the same,” Jeffrey said. “And in the Bartonsville situation, it was pretty hard to determine where the covering started and where the superstructure began.”
Cullenen said the league told him they were having a “lot of discussions with their re-insurance company and board of directors” and finally agreed to honor the town’s interpretation of the policy.
“We were thrilled,” said Cullenen.
Cullenen said the town was now applying to FEMA to cover the balance of the bridge’s replacement, and he estimated the town’s share of the $2.5 million would be $150,000.
The Shumlin administration has put a cap of 3 cents on any town’s tax rate to cover Irene damages. FEMA should pay for 90 percent of the remaining $1.5 million, the town manager said, with the state picking up 5 percent, leaving the rest to the town.
“I think we’ve paid all we’re going to pay,” said Jeffrey.
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