BRATTLEBORO -- Windham County will be getting more money to help recover from Tropical Storm Irene.
After officials from the local level through the state and on up to the federal level pitched together to petition the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an additional $4.5 million will be coming to the county in the form of a Community Development Block Grant.
"This was really not expected," said Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag. "It was a longshot."
"I was very pleased and surprised that it was successful," said Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy. "Usually HUD doesn't move that easily."
HUD was moved by appeals from Vermont's Department of Economic Housing and Community Development, the governor's office, letters from local legislators and regional community support agencies and Vermont's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
Originally, HUD, using an algorithm to determine how to dispense relief funds around the country, authorized more than $21 million to Vermont from the CDBG program. But of that, more than $17 million was designated for Washington and Windsor counties alone. The rest was to be distributed to the remaining 10 counties in the state.
Sondag said that would have been between $400,000 and $500,000 for Windham County.
"This increase to $4.5 million is really amazing," she said. "It increases dramatically the amount of money that is available to businesses, individuals
Laura Sibilia, the Project Director for Economic Development at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, said when folks in Windham County learned about the original allocation, they were "devastated and mystified" because it didn't line up with "what we were seeing here in terms of damages and unmet needs."
According to HUD's algorithm, damages had to exceed $10 million for communities to receive CDBG funds, and Windham County's amounted to only $8.9 million, a number it wasn't clear how HUD reached.
"BDCC was contracted by the towns of Wilmington and Dover to put emergency business assistance and coordination on the ground within a month after the flood," said Sibilia. "Just on the basis of the information they had collected, damages were close to $8 million, and that was just in Wilmington."
Working with Jennifer Hollar, the deputy commissioner of DEHCD, and the congressional delegation, the towns and the various regional agencies, such as BDCC and the Windham Regional Commission, were able to get HUD to reevaluate its conclusions.
"This was hard bureaucratic work and thankless stuff," said Jeff Lewis, BDCC's executive director. "Jen was strong and persistent."
"It's a relief," said Hollar. "Windham County has a lot of folks who still need help."
The funds come in two forms: Hazard mitigation grants and competitive grants. This new money can be used on long-term housing, mobile home replacement, repairs, help with rent, marketing, business support and community planning, just to name a few.
"This will enable us to insure that everyone who needs help has access to these recovery funds," said Hollar.
The original formula from HUD would have had the effect of severely limiting the amount of money for community infrastructure, housing repairs and business support, she said.
"And we knew there were still significant needs in Windham County," said Hollar. "We had been pushing for more flexibility from HUD with support of our congressional delegation."
According to a press release from Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, initial assessments done by HUD of the damages left behind by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 indicated that Washington and Windsor Counties were most in need of the federal funds.
But the state requested a dispensation of the HUD regulations in order to accommodate unmet housing and economic recovery needs in Windham County.
"In Vermont, the impact was so broad and in Windham County, according to the initial snapshot at the time, the damages were $8.9 million," said Hollar. "For a county of small towns in a small state, $8.9 million is an insurmountable number."
Hollar was quick to point out that projects in Windham County are eligible for up to $4.5 million if they qualify.
"We don't want folks to be disappointed that it's not a strict allocation to Windham County."
The next step is for the state, the towns and the regional agencies to work together to develop the strongest proposals possible.
"The town of Wilmington has a river wall in danger of collapsing," said Hollar. "That's a possible use."
"It would help tremendously," said Murphy. "We are working on the river wall now but we had no idea how we were going to pay for the repairs."
Murphy said he hopes to work with businesses that were affected by the flooding of the Deerfield River and make sure they put forth the strongest proposals possible.
Hollar said the CDBG money helps to fill in the gaps left by sources such as the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, FEMA, the Small Business Administration, the Vermont Economic Development Authority and various charitable organizations.
She said that even though Washington and Windsor counties will be getting a little less than expected, the state has determined that there are ways to take care of as many people and businesses as possible.
"We intend to use the CDBG funds to meet the most severe unmet needs that leverage the other resources to help folks in those communities," said Hollar.
Even though the state was successful in convincing HUD to reallocate the CDBG money, she said, Vermont is still looking for more money.
"We are still looking, as is the congressional delegation, to the federal Economic Development Administration for additional funds," said Hollar. "The search for additional money is ongoing."
The Windham Regional Commission and other local agencies had worked together to develop an action plan that will need to be revised, said Chris Campany, the executive director of the WRC.
WRC has a draft action plan on its website at windhamregional.org/news/200-wrc-cdbg.
"Once the new plan is posted on the web on Monday, we will have a better idea what the different options are," he said.
Sondag said some of this money could go to help the people who lost their mobile homes in Glenn Park, and the businesses and the Boys and Girls Club on Flat Street that were damaged by the flooding.
"They have really structured this funding to make it open and eligible to as many people as possible," she said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said the change in the allocation of the funding is "A big deal and great for Brattleboro and Windham County."
"I'm thrilled that Windham County is one step closer to getting the resources they need to recover from Irene and help us rebuild better than the way Irene found us," he said.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @shocked60.