One year after Sandy, Southold still owed $2M

10/29/2013 7:00 AM |
PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | North Ferry in Greenport during Superstorm Sandy.

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | North Ferry in Greenport during Superstorm Sandy.

One year after Hurricane Sandy swept across the North Fork, knocking down trees and power lines, flooding downtown Greenport and causing damage to town beaches and roadways, Southold Town officials said this week they are still waiting for roughly $2 million in federal funds after months of red tape, employee turnover and mistakes by the state have held up the town’s money.

Town officials said the delays have pushed back repair projects across town, including $600,000 in road reinforcement and more than $1 million in repairs to the Fishers Island airport.

“The delays are a setback, really a hardship for the town,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. “[We’re] having to duplicate everything we did. It was kind of like a double whammy.”

Related: Timeline breaks down Sandy’s arrival to the North Fork area

Town officials said they collected data like employee hours, contractor estimates and labor costs to fi ll out project worksheets — detailed documents explaining why the town needed funding for everything from employee overtime to repair costs.

The worksheets would then be completed by state contractors, who would pass them along to the New York State Office of Emergency Management. The state was supposed to review the worksheets and give them to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for final approval.

Click here to read past coverage of Superstorm Sandy.

Funds from FEMA would then be distributed through the state.

But consultants in the state office incorrectly filled in details on some of the worksheets, forcing the town to resubmit its data, town officials said. Town accountants were the first to notice the discrepancies in the worksheets, said Lloyd Reisenberg, the town’s network system’s administrator and liaison to FEMA.

“[The state] put our data in the wrong columns on some of these spreadsheets. They mixed up the rates of some employees,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. It slows the rate of payment for the town.”

The town has had to resubmit the data for the worksheets in “Category A,” the classification for debris removal and cleanup that totals about $500,000, Mr. Reisenberg said.

“It’s a long, long, drawn-out process,” he said, though he conceded that red tape — not just human error — is responsible.

“They’re not trying to screw us, that’s just the nature of the beast, I guess,” Mr. Reisenberg said.

A representative for the state Office of Emergency Management said she would look into the hold-up but did not provide comment as of presstime.

Town officials said another reason for the delay was constantly rotating staff at the state level who needed to be caught up to speed multiple times.

“People [at the state level] get reassigned, so we keep dealing with a different set of minds,” Mr. Russell said. “We had to literally go through the personnel, identify the office they worked for and re-enter all the hours.”

Federal funds related to paying for emergency personnel have already fl owed into the town, Mr. Reisenberg said.

But town officials said they’re not even sure yet exactly how much money they’re owed, because the total of requested funds keeps changing with amendments to the incorrect worksheets.

“Until they get their act together, it’s a moving target,” said town comptroller John Cushman.

In the meantime, town officials are holding off on repairs or finding other ways to fund the projects, trying to buy time until FEMA funds arrive, so they don’t have to dip into the town’s budget to pay for the projects.

The biggest outstanding project is a series of major repairs to the Fishers Island airport, Mr. Reisenberg said. Lighting was damaged at the airport during Sandy and still hasn’t been repaired, he said. Estimates place the cost for those repairs at more than $1 million.

Additionally, the town is holding off on roughly $600,000 in mitigation projects that would strengthen the ends of about 30 roads damaged by the storm, said town engineer James Richter. When Sandy hit, the ends of roads — like Nassau Point Road — were “attacked” by the surge, he said.

Town employees filled in with sand where the road was eroded, which Mr. Richter said would support everyday traffic and use. But if another storm hits, the road ends would still be vulnerable.

“Those repairs didn’t make it erosion-proof,” he said.

The $600,000 in funding would pay for the town to use large rocks to fill in underneath the roads, he said. Workers would then fi ll the remaining space with sand. Mr. Richter said if the ground eroded again, the road would suffer less damage as a result.

Southold Town is also applying for just under $120,000 to to rebuild a footbridge in Greenport that was wiped away by the surge. The wooden walkway at the end of Pipes Neck Road was knocked apart and its concrete supports were damaged beyond repair, Mr. Richter said.

The new bridge, which provides access to a nature preserve, would be rebuilt with aluminum and could be dismantled and removed if a storm occurred nearby, he said.

Work on that bridge will not start until the town gets the FEMA money, he said.

“It’s all about the money,” Mr. Richter said.

With FEMA money held up, officials are pursuing other ways to pay for repairs or debris cleanup where possible. At its meeting Tuesday night, the Southold Town Board authorized the town to apply for a $30,000 state historic preservation grant to pay for cleanup around Fort Corchaug in Cutchogue.

Mr. Russell said that although the structure , nears Downs Farm, wasn’t damaged in the storm, the nearby popular hiking trail was clogged with fallen branches and trees. The town has already paid for cleanup at the site and is now seeking the state grant to refill its coffers, he said.

Mr. Russell said the town could use money from contingency lines to pay for the other outstanding repairs like the road ends and Fishers Island airport. But if the contingency lines ran out during the projects, any remaining costs would have to come out of the town’s fund balance.

“That would be a worst-case scenario,” he said. “We have a lot of work that’s left to be done, but we’re waiting.”

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