The city of Schenectady’s administration has decided not to repair the sewage pump station in the Stockade, which was badly damaged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Irene in 2011, and instead build a $3 million new one just behind it. It should rethink that decision. The City Council’s non-action Monday on approving a contract for the new station, after a losing bidder raised issues about the fairness of the process, provides a good opportunity to do so.
The reason isn’t just money, though repairing and stabilizing would cost less than building new, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would foot some of the bill. It’s also that the pump station is a beautiful, historic building in the middle of the beautiful Stockade, the state’s first historic district, and fixing and continuing to use it would be the best way to preserve it.
While the city would, laudably, leave the old building standing — and try to find a new use for it, such as a community center run by some nonprofit organization — the fact is that without stabilization it could be damaged further by the next flood, or the one after that. Eventually it might have to be demolished, which would be a major historical and architectural loss to the city.
The city wants FEMA to pick up the entire tab for a new pump station, but the agency has refused. The reason is FEMA’s 50 percent rule, the same one that has caused a similar controversy in Schoharie County with its public safety building. The rule says FEMA won’t pay for new construction unless the cost of rebuilding is more than half that, and the agency takes a limited view of what constitutes rebuilding.
Like Schoharie County, the city believes that if all repair, stabilization and flood protection costs are considered, the sum would exceed 50 percent of the cost of building new. But FEMA typically only counts the cost of repair in its calculation. In this case, it hasn’t even bought the argument that stabilization is necessary, or that the slight shifting of the building’s foundation discovered by the city was caused by Irene and didn’t happen earlier.
City officials are right to be concerned about further damage to the pump station. It may be the city’s most critical piece of infrastructure, with its nearly four-foot-wide main pipe handling more than half the city’s sewage. Rupture of that line could be catastrophic, sending large volumes of untreated waste into the Mohawk River.
But that would be unlikely to happen if the old pump station is both repaired and stabilized. Stabilization would include driving in pilings around the station and tying them to its foundation.
The city had a consultant look at the building, and the estimated cost of repair and stabilization was $1.8 million — $800,000 for repair and $1 million for stabilization. FEMA has offered $700,000 — but only for repair, not stabilization.
The city has appealed and may still convince FEMA that stabilization is necessary and should be counted toward the 50 percent rule. In that case, the total cost of rebuilding would be $1.8 million, more than half the $3 million cost of new construction — and qualify a new station for full FEMA funding.
But the city wouldn’t have to build new. It could take the $1.8 million to repair and stabilize the old station, and that would be the right course.
If FEMA won’t relent, the city would be better off taking the agency’s $700,000 and paying the extra $1.1 million for stabilization itself.
That would still be much less expensive for the city than a new station, which, although built to be flood-proof, would be on the same level as the old one.
It would also avoid what is bound to be a painful argument by Stockaders and other city residents over design of a new station. And it would preserve the beautiful old station.
The city shouldn’t be so quick to build new.