Saturday March 23, 2013

TOWNSHEND -- After a long battle, Townshend will be reimbursed for the cost of a large culvert installed after Tropical Storm Irene’s devastating floods in 2011.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont’s congressional delegation announced Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has changed course and agreed that the Dam Road culvert is eligible for full reimbursement.

The decision comes after a second appeal had been filed by the state on behalf of Townshend. And it is welcome news for town leaders and taxpayers.

"This is a great relief," Selectboard member Hedy Harris said.

The issue arose when Townshend replaced the former corrugated metal culvert with a larger, concrete box culvert in the wake of Irene. That design complied with state standards, with officials saying the concrete culvert "will be much more likely to withstand future extreme flooding events."

However, FEMA ruled that the state culvert standard was not considered reimbursable under federal law.

The appeal of that decision was billed as a "test case" for other Vermont towns facing similar issues. But there was some ambiguity on Friday about whether the FEMA decision will have any impact in other communities.

The state’s announcement touted the ruling as a possible precedent "that would allow dozens of Vermont towns to qualify for funds to receive full reimbursement -- at 90 percent of project costs -- from FEMA for similar projects."

"This is critical for Townshend and the dozens of other small Vermont communities that rebuilt culverts strong enough to withstand future flooding," Shumlin said. "Several have similar projects that have been contested by FEMA and could now be funded thanks to Townshend’s successful appeal."

State officials also said they will be working with FEMA "to review other culvert projects around the state which may have additional funding eligibility as a result of this decision."

In the same press release, however, a quote from a FEMA official indicated that the decision affects only Townshend.

"Even though the decision upheld FEMA’s position that this standard was not an eligible one, the ruling grants us a waiver to move forward with mitigation funding for this project, and that’s a good step," said Mark Landry, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for Vermont.

Regardless of its implications elsewhere, the announcement was viewed as a victory for Townshend and state officials. Joe Flynn, director of the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, dubbed it "an affirmation that common sense and reason is rewarded."

Irene Recovery Officer Dave Rapaport lauded town and state officials for making a "compelling argument" to FEMA.

"This is a sensible decision and a good outcome for federal taxpayers in that it will minimize the cost of future flood damage, which is the goal of the federal Hazard Mitigation program," Rapaport said.

Vermont’s congressional representatives -- Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch -- also were involved in lobbying FEMA.

They issued a joint statement lauding the agency’s "welcome change of heart" on the culvert matter.

"We have been pushing hard for this change and discussed it at length when we met with FEMA Administrator (Craig) Fugate," the joint statement said. "As a matter of federal policy, it makes no sense to use federal tax dollars to put back in place the same size culverts that just blew out. If they didn’t survive the last flood, they aren’t likely to survive the next. Rebuilding to these higher standards now will save lives and lots of money in the long run."

In the short term, the FEMA decision eases financial pressure on Townshend. It was not clear on Friday just how much cash the town is due from FEMA, though state officials said the agency’s initial denial "would have forced the town of Townshend to cover the $100,000 funding gap created by the upgrade."

Harris said the culvert cost $553,695. So far, Townshend has received $305,514 in reimbursement from state and federal sources, she said.

Harris earlier this month said culvert debt had placed a huge strain on Townshend’s fiscal 2014 spending plan, leading to a 13-percent increase over this year’s budget.

That budget was approved at Town Meeting. But with FEMA money on the way, Harris said officials will be able to take a more moderate approach when setting the town’s fiscal 2014 tax rate in a few months.

"The primary thing it will do is keep the tax rate down," Harris said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.