By John Burton
It amounts to big dollars for the relatively small towns – and even for those with relatively little damage – for the cleanup and recovery from Super Storm Sandy.
The storm that landed about eight weeks ago and cut a destructive swath across much of the Jersey Shore, especially in Monmouth County, has forced municipalities to address immediate emergency needs. The costs range from hundreds of thousands of dollars for some towns that experienced comparatively little damage to millions for others. Some are contemplating long-term redevelopment projects that will have substantial price tags attached.
Municipality officials have been applying for reimbursement to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with the agency assuring them they will get 75 percent of valid costs recovered and possibly up to 90 percent – though that officially has yet to be determined.
Some local officials are expressing nervousness at the 112th Congress’ failure to vote on a bill that would free up $60 billion in storm recovery money. As of Jan. 2, that vote was being handed over to the 113th Congress.
Sea Bright with its 1,500 year-round residents was one of the towns most dramatically impacted by Sandy, causing damage that preliminary estimates put at roughly $450 million for public and private property. For its initial expenses the borough council authorized emergency expenditures at $3.7 million, according to Joseph Verruni, Sea Bright’s acting administrator.
That money, he said, was used for massive debris removal, immediate emergency repairs to necessary infrastructure, overtime costs and replacement of equipment.
“We’re fast approaching our limit of $3.7 (million),” Verruni said, noting the borough council is looking at additional expenditures, including the second layer of repairs to damaged municipal structures and to shore up the seawall.
Sea Bright officials are relying on short-term notes for funds at this point, hopeful for quick reimbursement, Verruni said.
Atlantic Highlands was spared some of the most severe damage that neighboring communities experienced because much of the borough sits at a higher elevation. But, Borough Administrator Adam Hubeny said the town’s municipal harbor/marina and some nearby private businesses bore the brunt of it, sustaining damage estimated at between $35 million and $40 million.
The initial outlay for cleanup and recovery was an emergency expenditure of $150,000. The borough council is expected this month to vote on an additional $500,000, which will eventually be rolled into a long-term bond, Hubeny said. That money will be used to pay for the brush and debris removal, equipment and overtime, he said.
“We don’t have the cash flow that’s needed to fund 100 percent of what ultimately our insurance and FEMA will reimburse us,” he said.
The long-term bond, which would be paid for over the course of years, will be used for projects including the repair of the municipally owned and operated harbor and potentially could be as large as $20 million.
“It’s a big deal. It’s a lot of money for a small town,” Hubeny said.
However, the harbor, which is a self-sustaining utility, is supported by its users and the cost of repairs “should have no impact on property taxes,” he said.
Traditionally, the harbor commission provides $1 million a year to the town to offset property taxes. “We’re not sure that’s coming uptown this year,” to borough hall, Hubeny said.
Middletown, the largest municipality in Monmouth County with more than 40 square miles and 60,000 residents, has allocated approximately $20 million in short-term notes to cover its cost. A significant amount of that was for debris and brush removal.
Mayor Anthony Fiore said the biggest portion of the storm’s price tag for Middletown was taking away large ruined appliances from homes and businesses flooded and damaged by the storm.
Rumson officials have issued a one-year note for $5 million to address its costs, with brush and debris removal taking up a lion’s share of it.
According to Tom Rogers, Rumson’s administrator, borough workers and private contractors have hauled 80,000 cubic yards of brush and about 2,000 tons of debris that resulted from the storm’s flooding and high winds.
Rumson also has to make repairs to its infrastructure, including sewer pumping stations, damaged equipment and parks and sports fields, Rogers said.
Following the 1992 storm, local officials authorized upgrades along with repairs to the sewer system “but the improvements were no match for Hurricane Sandy,” Rogers said.
Red Bank approved $454,000 for its work, an amount to be paid off over a five-year period, according to Chief Financial Officer Colleen Lapp.
Little Silver appropriated $2.4 million of which $1.9 million was used for brush removal, borough CFO, Laura Geraghty said. That was done by way of a self-funded emergency appropriation, as opposed to bonding.
Fair Haven faired relatively unscathed from the storm’s wrath, but still had to allocate $125,000. “We will absorb the cost in our current budget,” until reimbursement is received, said Theresa Casagrande, Fair Haven administrator.
Much of that money will come from the town’s current snow removal budget line item, as permitted by a recent governor executive order, and will be replaced with reimbursements, Casagrande said.
As for those reimbursements, municipal officials interviewed indicated they have had meetings with FEMA representatives and have been submitting preliminary paperwork for the money.
The process will involve federal, local and state input with the state Office of Emergency Management being the lead agency, said Darrell Habisch, a FEMA spokesman.
Payments will be for at least 75 percent of their “emergency costs above and beyond their normal expectations,” Habisch said.
But towns ultimately may be able to receive 90 percent if the storm “is such a severe nature” that is crosses a certain dollar threshold. If so, President Obama and Congress can authorize the higher reimbursement, said Chuck Chaffins, a FEMA infrastructure branch manager, who couldn’t be specific at this time as to what is that higher dollar threshold.
While there is no specific timeframe, municipalities can expect the money “in a relatively quick turnaround,” Habisch said.
But, he noted, that the 112th Congress did not take up the Senate’s $60 billion aid bill, thus leaving any additional money for recovery uncertain.
Habisch could not immediately comment on that development. However, Red Bank Borough Councilman Michael DuPont, who chairs the council’s finance committee, feared, “without that aid you’re looking at taxes potentially going up.”
Atlantic Highlands’ Hubeny agreed.
“Anytime you’re dealing with dollars like this you’re definitely looking at affecting people’s lives,” he said. “What we don’t want to see is our taxes going up because of this.”
Fiore, a Republican, was critical of the Republican-controlled House’s action. “I’m probably in a long line of people who believe spending needs to be reined in and spending cuts are necessary, but there are things that government should spend on and this is exactly it.”
Outrage was not only on the local level with U.S. Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat whose 6th Congressional District includes areas severely hit by the storm, said in a released statement, “I am outraged that at a time when we need it the most Speaker [John] Boehner could dismiss the need for the same kind of relief has been granted to other regions hit by disaster.”
State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican who represents the 13th Legislative District, said in a released statement, “This is an utter disgrace.”
“Congress not approving this bill, we have some concerns,” Hubeny said, “but we think ultimately it will get done.”