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County appeals disaster funding

Officials fighting FEMA to move jail to higher ground

Friday, January 24, 2014
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The Schoharie County jail on Depot Lane in the Village of Schoharie, photographed in April 2012.
The Schoharie County jail on Depot Lane in the Village of Schoharie, photographed in April 2012.

— Schoharie County picked up two major pieces of support recently in the quest to get federal help to move the flooded county jail to higher ground.

The county is battling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over disaster funding FEMA wants spent rebuilding the jail in the same spot it sat when it was inundated by the Schoharie Creek in August 2011.

County officials want to move the jail to high ground and, following a rejection by FEMA regional officials, the county Board of Supervisors last month approved appealing to FEMA in Washington, D.C.

Correspondence distributed during the county’s Board of Supervisors meeting Friday suggests FEMA’s goal won’t fly in New York state because state officials won’t allow the jail to be rebuilt where it is.

County treasurer and flood recovery coordinator William Cherry told the supervisors he sees one letter — issued this week from the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s floodplain management chief — as a “smoking gun” for the county’s case.

In the letter, the DEC’s William S. Nechamen outlines a host of regulations related to the flood plain and what can’t be done in that flood plain, such as “floodproofing” places where people sleep. The county initially eyed a flood wall-type structure to protect the county lockup from another flood.

“Because the ground floor of the structure would house prisoners, this could be considered to be a residential structure,” Nechamen said in the letter, dated Jan. 21.

“FEMA requirements, as repeated in the village’s Local Law and in the Building Code of New York State, do not allow for floodproofing of a residential structure,” Nechamen wrote.

Cherry said local laws can’t be ignored by the federal agency.

“FEMA must comply with local regulations,” Cherry said.

New York state is paying 25 percent of the cost of FEMA-funded disaster recovery projects, and state law doesn’t allow state money to be spent as FEMA desires, Nechamen said in the letter.

“Because a substantially damaged structure is treated like a new structure, [the law] would not allow a correctional facility, major communication center, civil defense center, or major emergency service facility within a flood hazard area if state funding or state land is involved,” Nechamen wrote.

“While building a new facility outside of the flood hazard area will be more expensive in the short run, it will save significant flood damage expenses in the long run and may save lives,” Nechamen said in the letter,

The Public Safety Facility, situated off Depot Lane in the village, housed the county’s E-911 dispatch center, the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office and Emergency Management Office when flooding forced its evacuation.

About 40 prisoners were evacuated as well, and the county now pays Albany County to house prisoners with FEMA reimbursement.

Federal and local priorities clashed when the county’s flood recovery team, including Cherry and consultant Simmons Recovery, disagreed with FEMA over its “50 percent rule.”

Estimates for fixing the jail where it sits put the cost at $7.1 million, but necessary flood prevention and code compliance measures cost another $6.1 million.

A new jail somewhere else is estimated to cost $18.7 million, not including engineering, so the county contended that’s at least half the cost of repairs and fits with FEMA’s general rule of paying for replacement so long as repairs would cost at least half as much.

Cherry on Friday also distributed copies of a letter sent to FEMA from New York state’s Executive Chamber. In the letter dated Dec. 26, Director of State Operations Howard Glaser says FEMA is “missing a key opportunity to protect a critical public safety facility.”

The jail met with flood plain requirements when it was built, but no longer, Glaser says in the letter.

“Now, however, as catastrophic and extreme weather has become more routine, this facility is no longer viable in its current location,” Glaser wrote.

“In fact, even if the facility could be protected, first responders would have to travel through floodwaters, risking their lives to reach it. This is obviously not acceptable,” Glaser said.

Glaser goes further and suggests a review of paperwork in the case “shows that FEMA has failed to work in partnership with the state to arrive at a solution that would best serve Schoharie County’s needs.”

Cherry said the county’s consulting team is currently drafting the appeal to FEMA officials in Washington.

A call to a FEMA spokesperson was not immediately returned Friday evening.

 
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