Blame placed on state for continued delays
By Terry Duffy
"We're working hard for the release of these funds."
So summarized Robert Welch, constituent relations manager for New York State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, to a large group of Lake Ontario property owners who gathered Wednesday at the Ransomville firehall. The meeting with area officials marked the latest chapter in a continuing series, intended to address the status of damage claims filed by property owners in response to last spring and summer's high water/flooding and erosion events on Lake Ontario.
"There's a big concern here," Porter Supervisor Duffy Johnston told the crowd as he introduced the panel. Besides Welch, panelists included Jonathan Schultz, Niagara County Emergency Services coordinator; David Godfrey, 10th District legislator and public safety chairman; Clyde Burmaster, First District legislator; Lynne Johnson, Orleans County legislator/chairwoman; and Bridget Corcoran, staffer from U.S. Rep. Chris Collins office.
All said residents heard funding from the various governmental assistance channels remains a work in progress, and the wait continues.
And blame for the delays was placed directly on the state - namely Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.
Welch said the state's initial response to damage claims statewide included resolutions filed by both houses in Albany that totaled $90 million in assistance. That request went on to be vetoed by Cuomo and was replaced by a state alternative offer of $45 million. That funding was broken down to three levels of $15 million throughout the affected lakeshore areas, with application deadlines set to handle claims.
Regional assistance programs, including one administered locally by Niagara Falls Neighborhood Housing Services, began to serve affected property owners. Separate assistance programs for municipalities and businesses also began.
Problem was, officials assigned to dole out the funding soon realized the damage totals of claims filed far exceeded the $45 million total the state initially allocated, Welch said.
"Wouldn't you know (it), that funding was $45-50 million short," he said.
In response, after months of delay, state officials with the governor's office began to allocate additional monies this year, Welch said. First came a combined state Assembly-Senate $10 million funding allocation in January, followed by an additional $40 million this spring as the state budget process moved along, bringing the entire total to more than $90 million - the amount initially requested, Welch pointed out.
"With the extra $50 million, it should cover everyone's expenses. (So) what's the issue (as to the delays)?" he asked.
In essence, Welch claimed the state has held the process up, delaying its release of the latest funding intended to settle the claims already filed.
"The legislature does not have control over release of those funds, that's from the governor's office," he said. "We're working behind the scenes, telling them we need to get this money released. People are looking for relief, either getting reimbursed or monies they already paid out. We're working hard, getting the governor's office to release these funds."
Welch suggested property owners remain patient. Those who have worked with Niagara Falls Neighborhood Housing Services on obtaining assistance should contact Kathleen Steinman, executive director, in order to obtain a status update on their claims. For details, visit www.niagarafallsnhs.org
or call 716-285-7778.
In his remarks, Schultz told visitors Lake Ontario waters are down 3 feet from last year's high levels, and that, despite inaction from the state, some public assistance is moving. Of the local governmental funding, he said $199,000 has been awarded to Niagara County for earlier shoreline mitigation measures; more than $300,000 to the Town of Porter for shoreline remediation, with smaller amounts to Wilson for land stabilization projects; $500,000 to the Town of Newfane to study a potential break wall, plus $65,000 for mitigation measures; and $49,000 to the Village of Baker for break wall and shoreline work.
Explaining the continued funding delays, Schultz said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has worked and continues to work with area municipalities on moving funding allocations. But he placed the blame on New York state, first for not pushing to expedite an emergency declaration, and second for not anticipating the volume of funding needs.
Schultz said this was the state response - despite Niagara County taking immediate action, first to assist those affected from the lakeshore flooding emergencies, and then by calls for declarations.
"The state was not pleased with (Niagara County's) earlier declarations; they felt it wasn't a disaster at that time. They just thought it was a rain event," Schultz said.
"This (lake flooding) went on for months," he noted and said state delays in declaring emergencies, in turn, translated into delays on the federal level in declarations and in allocating/awarding funding - a delay process that lingers.
Comparing FEMA's response to that of how it handles hurricane responses, Schultz said the agency is now considering different formulas and thresholds in its future determination of events such as the Lake Ontario floods that could lead to emergency declarations.
He assured property owners that, while public assistance has been underway, private assistance, while not yet there, is indeed forthcoming.
"Different criteria exists for private properties; thresholds need to be met," he said.
Meanwhile, the wait continues and claimants need to be patient.
As to the International Joint Commission and its management of Lake Ontario water levels through the IJC's much-criticized Plan 2014, speakers Corcoran, Godfrey and Johnson all said progress is being made, albeit slower than wished.
Corcoran said two IJC members and the commission's chair have resigned and are due to replaced, but the IJC has been holding up the process, despite efforts in Congress by Rep. Collins and the Trump administration for swifter action.
"Hopefully we'll see results soon," Corcoran said.
"Collins is guaranteeing changes at the IJC. Hopefully, we will beat this," Johnson said. She alluded to both changes on the IJC board and to action on Plan 2014.
Officials closed by announcing the next meeting of the Lake Ontario property owners will take place Wednesday, May 16, again at the Ransomville firehall (time to be announced).