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Municipal Storm Cleanup Costs Expected To Exceed $1 Million

Published: June 8, 2018

While dozens of town and contract workers using heavy equipment began the challenging chore of detangling and removing hundreds of trees felled in a devastating May 15 storm from the hard-hit Lakeview Terrace and Cedarhurst neighborhoods, town officials have been working to cobble together the approximately $1 million it will likely cost before all the post-storm cleanup is complete.

That process cleared its first hurdle Monday, June 4, when the Board of Selectmen unanimously agreed to use $300,000 in unexpended funds from several current year budget lines to apply to immediate storm response invoices.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced the following day that it would provide assistance requested by the State of Connecticut in performing a preliminary assessment of damage from the May 15 storm.

US Senator Richard Blumenthal issued a release on June 6 saying completion of the FEMA assessment is the next step necessary in submitting a formal request for a disaster declaration.

“I welcome FEMA’s announcement today that it will aid in the state’s damage assessment — an important step towards putting together a strong, successful request for a disaster declaration,” Sen Blumenthal said. “After seeing firsthand the extreme damage and destruction caused by last month’s severe storm, I can say with certainty that Connecticut has a strong case for federal aid. I remain in touch with local, state and federal leaders and will do all that I can to support the state’s request.”

First Selectman Dan Rosenthal told The Newtown Bee that once rough estimates of municipal cleanup costs were defined for the purpose of initiating a federal disaster claim, Finance Director Robert Tait scoured remaining current year budget allocations and located $178,000 from a road repair account, $50,000 from a contingency account, and the balance from several wage and salary accounts to put together the first appropriation.

The appropriation request now goes to the Board of Finance for review on June 11, and if approved, to the Legislative Council on June 20. In the meantime, Mr Tait said the Council was asked to initiate an emergency appropriation process that will funnel $700,000 from the town’s fund balance to cover the remaining anticipated cleanup expense.

That request was initiated at the council’s regular meeting June 6.

With combined municipal and private storm claims from the May 15 macroburst expected to top $2.7 million, the first selectman said he is making a “leap of faith” in initiating these appropriations in the hope that FEMA will reimburse Newtown in excess of 75 percent of the town expenditures.

“But we probably won’t have any real idea about how much Newtown has qualified for in that FEMA process until sometime in August,” Mr Rosenthal said.

Somewhere down the road, as long as the federal reimbursement is approved, the first priority will be to restore the $700,000 to the municipal fund balance, something of a rainy day fund to be drawn upon for incidents such as the recent storm damage.

“Look, we’ve already started spending this money beginning immediately after the storm hit,” Mr Rosenthal said.” My feeling is, the community suffered from this major weather event, and our residents expect the town to handle the cleanup. You can’t budget for these things, but you have to manage them.”

The first selectman said the first priority in the days after the storm was to make residents safe by clearing paths through the debris so all homes could be reached in the event emergency response was needed. At the same time, intense pressure was exerted to get electrical power restored.

Next was to turn attention toward developing the cleanup and damage estimate for FEMA. Mr Rosenthal said Deputy Director of Planning, Land Use, and Emergency Management Rob Sibley, and Public Works Director Fred Hurley provided invaluable guidance in that respect.

“They developed that $1 million estimate, which we believe is close to what we’ll spend,” the first selectman said. “Newtown is very fortunate to have a seasoned team that is familiar with FEMA reimbursement protocols and guidelines.”

Ever hopeful that Newtown will eventually recoup most of its storm-related losses, Mr Rosenthal said anything received beyond the $700,000 appropriated from the fund balance will go into the Town Capital Nonrecurring budget, where it will be reallocated to cover projects that were shelved to free up the initial $300,000.

“As we saw in the Lakeview Terrace area alone, there was so much raw lumber brought down by the winds that we needed special crews and equipment to get the restoration done,” Mr Rosenthal said. “I’m not sure we will ever get the full $1 million back, but we’ll use what we get to restore the accounts we tapped and then work to find the funds to restore the balances in the rest of the accounts we had to use to cover cleanup response.”

“If the $300,000 is restored, we’ll re-prioritize expenditures, starting with money taken from the road repair budget,” Mr Tait added. “And then the unfulfilled 2018-19 capital requests [from an anticipated nominal surplus] we were hoping to fund before the storm.”

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