Southold was spared from the worst of Superstorm Sandy’s damage, but the storm’s legacy is still shaking up Town Hall, Supervisor Scott Russell said in Tuesday’s State of the Town address.
There was plenty of good news to report for 2012: the town had an end-of-year fund balance of $8.2 million, $1.2 million more than anticipated; recycling revenue was up 30 percent; 28,500 meals were delivered to elderly residents’ homes; a new dynamic website was launched; an economic development committee was created to work with business owners to make Southold a better place to do business; the town had maintained an excellent bond rating and preserved 142 acres of land.
But the storm’s $2.6 million cost and the ongoing red tape of seeking reimbursement from FEMA, helping residents rebuild their damaged homes and preparing Southold for the next major storm have been Mr. Russell’s primary focus for the past four months.
“It was the first time I’ve had to declare a mandatory evacuation in my six years as supervisor,” said Mr. Russell of the storm, adding his thanks to fire department members who put themselves in harm’s way during the evacuation effort, deep water rescues and electrical fires.
Mr. Russell said the cost of damage to Southold Town’s mainland infrastructure is expected to top $1.6 million, while damage on Fishers Island cost more than $440,000. Debris removal cost the town $446,000 and the activation of the town’s emergency response team cost more than $100,000.
“FEMA has assured us that most of these costs are reimbursable, but they take time,” he said. “We still haven’t received some reimbursement from Irene.”
Mr. Russell said town officials now know they need to do even more to prepare for the region’s next big storm.
The town is planning to develop a geographic information systems-based evacuation plan, which would allow fire departments and residents to determine if individual properties are in flood zones and need to be evacuated.
During Sandy, emergency officers used “tabular listings,” or street-by-street maps of areas that were at risk from flooding, the supervisor said.
“We mapped out where the storm surge was after the storm,” said Mr. Russell, adding that those maps can be used in the future to pinpoint more accurate flood risks.
Mr. Russell said the town also plans to purchase generators and work with volunteer groups to staff shelters the next time there’s a storm.
“We need to think about the two-to-three week challenges we face after a storm,” he said.
Mr. Russell praised the town’s solid waste management efforts, which brought in $2 million in revenue, “more than ever before,” he said. Recycling revenue was $154,000, he said, while the town’s new e-waste disposal program brought in $7,000. A free paper-shredding program for residents brought in 21,000 pounds of recyclable paper.
The town was also able to eliminate three full-time positions due to the retirement of staff members in 2012.
“When people leave, we don’t fill the positions,” he said. “It’s a very rare prospect that we would be laying someone off.”
Though Mr. Russell said he’d seen media reports of a big jump in Community Preservation Fund revenue from January of 2012 to January of this year, he cautioned that mortgage tax receipts, another indicator of the health of the real estate market, actually decreased in the same period.
“Times are still tough. The economy is still on very shaky ground,” he said. “Real estate is still not robust and prosperous.”
He also said the town is taking a very cautious approach to debt. The town is currently paying off $58 million in debt, $40 million of which is due to open space preservation. Though Mr. Russell said the debt is “well-managed,” he said he wants to ensure the town never makes a habit of using deficit financing to pay its bills.
He also praised the police department for working with local schools on updating safety measures in the wake of last year’s Newtown, Conn. shooting, and said the town is “doing everything we can” to find missing Southold teenager Ashley Murray.
“The police will have whatever resources they need. They’re doing everything they can to bring this young girl home safe,” he said.
Mr. Russell said this year his administration plans to adopt zoning for Plum Island, special events legislation and a leash law, continue to work on improving stormwater management and protection of the Goldsmith Inlet watershed in Peconic. He also plans to work with state legislators to give towns more home rule on deer hunt regulations and develop a consortium with park districts and schools to manage and provide public access to sports fields. He said the town is looking into the possibility of buying more fields for recreation.
Mr. Russell said the town plans to hold more meetings at libraries and community centers to engage the public in discussions of town affairs.
“We have large and hardworking work force in town government. They work very hard to do best job they can,” he said. “All the people who work here try very hard to always be open to suggestion and input.”