BRATTLEBORO -- More than 13 months after Tropical Storm Irene swept through Vermont, some towns still are struggling with the federal government’s complex -- some say flawed -- disaster-aid program.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has been hearing from those towns, and he believes the Federal Emergency Management Agency can improve its handling of a sometimes drawn-out reimbursement process that can leave local officials fed up and bewildered.
"There’s a lot of frustration with specific applications from towns," Welch said Friday in an interview at the Reformer.
Welch, a Democrat seeking his fourth term as Vermont’s lone representative in the House, noted that many Selectboards had to immediately undertake repair work after Irene’s flooding devastated the area on Aug. 28, 2011.
"A lot of towns had to make quick decisions to protect the infrastructure. They had to act immediately," Welch said.
But now that those town officials are seeking reimbursement of eligible expenses from the federal government, some are "just getting a lot of hassle, a lot of bureaucratic runaround from FEMA," Welch said.
He outlined one scenario: Towns are receiving very different answers from different FEMA representatives, leaving local officials unsure of how to proceed and how much money they’ll receive.
"What they’ve found is, they’re working with an administrator, they reach agreements, suddenly that administrator is transferred, the new administrator comes in, tears up the old paperwork, starts all over," Welch said. "What they thought was one project becomes four or five projects. What was a ‘yes’ now becomes a ‘no.’ What was a ‘maybe’ becomes a ‘no.’"
Newfane officials recently have found themselves in a similar predicament. They’ve repeatedly received contradictory deadlines from FEMA as they seek approval of alternative uses for up to $455,220 in federal bridge replacement money.
Welch said he and Vermont’s U.S. senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and Independent Bernie Sanders, have been "doing all we can to intervene" in such situations.
"But it’s not going fast enough," Welch said. "Our towns and our citizens should be entitled to an answer in a timely way. It may not always be the answer we want, but it should be delivered in real time."
The process, he said, has shown that there is a "flaw in the system" that must be addressed by FEMA, Welch said.
"There are lots of managerial issues," he said. "It certainly raises that."
Welch said he also has sought to make it easier for small business owners to receive storm-related aid.
"The application process treated them like Fortune 500 companies with the information that they were required to present," he said. "So I’ve talked to the Small Business Administration about that to see whether Vermont can get in a pilot program that would simplify things."
Welch, who is facing Republican Mark Donka and three others in the November general election, addressed a variety of other issues during a stop in Brattleboro:
* With a gallon of regular unleaded hovering just below $4 in the Brattleboro area, Welch said high gas prices are a major constituent concern.
Welch believes the federal government must work to rein in market speculation that, he says, can account for 20 percent of the cost of the barrel of oil.
"It takes governmental action to stand up for the consumer, for the farmer, for the family," he said. "And the battle in Congress is about whether we’re going to allow government to work on behalf of average people or basically put the fix in for folks who are doing really well already."
* Welch warned that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act -- known to Obama administration opponents as "ObamaCare" -- could cripple Vermont’s efforts to move toward a centralized, single-payer health-care system later this decade.
The Affordable Care Act "is critical to Vermont’s efforts to do a single-payer (system), because this would bring funding in to achieve that goal that we as taxpayers in Vermont . . . wouldn’t be able to afford on our own," Welch said.
He was critical of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s pledges to work to repeal the act if he is elected.
"It’s really pretty outrageous what Romney’s doing because, No. 1, he’s trashing a program that was modeled very significantly on what he did in Massachusetts," Welch said. "And why is he running away from that? And No. 2, he has no alternative - he just wants to repeal."
* Defense spending cuts must be a big part of any plan to reduce the federal budget deficit, Welch said. He advocates a thorough review of Pentagon spending and strategy.
"Start with, what’s our core mission? What do we need to do? Do we need as many troops as we have in Europe?" Welch said. "The Homeland Security expenditures that we’re making, with these fusion centers where it’s being now documented that they’re wasting money and not getting us intelligence that’s actionable or helping make us more secure."
He added that expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "have made us less secure, not more."
"These are all raising fundamental questions about, what’s our strategic approach to national security?" he said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.