Irene Lingers As Select Boards Present Budgets

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(Host) Many Vermont towns have been grappling with the cost of clean-up and repairs from Tropical Storm Irene.  

They’re hoping most of the tab will be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  But it’s a slow process.  

With many questions still unanswered, it’s been a challenging year for select boards as they prepare budgets to present to voters on Town Meeting Day.

We have three reports today about how the financial fallout from Irene is affecting town budgets.

First, VPR’s Susan Keese takes us to Halifax.

(Keese) Halifax Selectman Lewis Sumner guides his pickup down the Green River Road — a major link for townspeople who work in Brattleboro or Massachusetts.

(Sumner) "This was all washed out through here."

(Keese) The Green River Road was the hardest hit in this town of 728 residents, where every road saw some damage. It’s only been open since mid-December and won’t be paved until summer.

(Sumner)  "It used to be trees, along the edge here. The river’s twice as wide there now as it was."

(Keese) Newly installed metal guard rails mark a cliff edge, where trees once shaded the river.

Sumner stops to check out a temporary bridge that’s just now being installed, at an estimated cost of $127,000.

(Sumner) "And with FEMA, we still don’t know whether they’re going to pay for it or not."

(Keese) Since Tropical Storm Irene, people on the road across the river here have faced a 12-mile detour over unpaved roads to get to Brattleboro.

An initial request to FEMA met with the response that residents do have another route out. But Sumner says the detour gets sticky in March.

(Sumner) "And we figure, with more and more traffic on it, it’s going to be deeper and deeper in mud, you know."

(Keese) The town is hoping to convince FEMA with new information.

But the temporary bridge is one of many unknowns facing Halifax and other storm-damaged towns, where many repairs are temporary and will have to be redone.

FEMA is expected to pay three-quarters of the permanent bridge replacement. But bids on that are months away.

FEMA estimates the damage in Halifax at about $6 million. Halifax Select Board member Edee Edwards says the town expects to cut those costs by acting as its own general contractor.

(Edwards) "We estimate that the damage totals are going to be somewhere between $3.7 to $4 million. To date we’ve spent $2.4 million."

(Keese) The impact of those expenditures is softened by a one-year line of credit taken out after the storm. Edwards says Halifax will have to approve a bond later this year for its share of the final costs.

It’s premature now to say how much that bond will be. The board has estimated interest on half a million dollars and built that into its 2013 budget proposal.

But Edwards says the real impact will start showing up in 2014.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

(bus sound)  

(Keck) And I’m Nina Keck.

Nearly 90 miles north of Halifax, buses rumble along Route Four taking skiers to Killington and Pico. Driving that same route back in September, Chris Danforth, marketing director for the ski resorts, pointed to sections of the road that had recently reopened.

(Danforth)  "You see before photos of what this looks like. Giant trees and debris strewn across the road, boulders. And they were able to get it in short order cleaned up and get traffic flowing through this section again."

(Keck) Town officials in Killington say it will take two years to pay for all the flood damage – about $2.8 million worth. Of that, FEMA is expected to provide $2.1 million. But Killington Select Board member James Haff says there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding those funds, which has made crafting a budget difficult.

(Haff) "We’re doing the best that we can to put a budget together, but it’s really a blind budget. We have to make decisions to run our town and I would be sure that some of those decisions would have been looked at differently if we know really what we’re going to get from the feds or from the state."

(Keck) Killington’s fall foliage season took a direct hit because of the storm and town officials say the current lack of snow has cut into winter tourism. Not surprisingly, revenue from the town’s 1 percent local option tax is down over 5 percent.

Seth Webb, interim town manager, says Killington is also in the midst of paying down a $5 million golf course debt. Despite all the challenges, he says the select board managed to balance the town budget this year without raising taxes. They did it, he says. by redirecting economic development and general transportation funds and cutting where possible. 

(Webb) "Which is pretty amazing: to basically deal with a million dollars in new costs to a $3.7 dollar and to absorb those without raising taxes is a huge step forward."

(Keck) Killington residents will weigh in on Town Meeting Day.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.

(Zind)  Halifax and Killington are just two examples of more than 200 towns and villages grappling with cost of Irene recovery. 

I’m Steve Zind. Irene’s flooding is casting a shadow over town finances largely because they’re still waiting to see how much they’ll get from FEMA.

(Portalupi) "I think you run the gamut depending on the town. Some towns are very anxious."

(Zind) Alec Portalupi of the Vermont Agency of Transportation is working with towns to apply for FEMA aid. The agency administers the federal program.

(Portalupi) "All right, what I have before us here is a project worksheet."

(Zind) Portalupi says there are hundreds of FEMA public repair projects and so far about $10 million in federal money has been paid out.  But it’s estimated that towns could receive more than 7 times that amount, so there’s still a long way to go.  

And there are some major flood costs that FEMA may not cover.  Steven Jeffrey is executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

(Jeffrey) "One of my big concerns is what are they going to do with debris removal. Those costs are probably not going to be covered by FEMA.  I think that’s a big liability, a big exposure the towns have for which there isn’t a solution at this point."

(Zind) Jeffrey says some budgets put before voters on Town Meeting Day will show deficits in some departments because of money spent out of pocket for Irene repairs. 

Towns have also taken out loans that will help them spread the costs over several years. And they’re hoping much of the borrowed money will come back to them through FEMA assistance.  But seven months after Irene, much remains unclear.

(Jeffrey) "We’re driving through the fog, we’re getting close to the destination and we can start seeing the outlines, but there’s still an awful lot of fog."

(Zind) Its likely voters in flood-struck towns will have many questions about how to pay for repairs – and that town officials won’t have all the answers at this point. 

For VPR News, I’m Steve Zind.

You’ll find town meeting warnings and much more coverage of Town Meeting Day issues at VPR’s Public Post, our local news service.

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