SARANAC LAKE - U.S. Rep. Bill Owens fielded questions Saturday about funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the agency's response to communities in Essex County that were battered by Tropical Storm Irene.
A group of about 50 people showed up for the town hall forum at North Country Community College, where Owens responded to questions on a range of topics: from holistic medicine to state Adirondack Park Agency regulations to term limits.
Several speakers talked about the devastation in Keene, Keene Valley, Jay and AuSable Forks, where flooding triggered by Irene destroyed homes, businesses, roads and bridges. They asked about FEMA's disaster relief fund. FEMA officials said Friday that the fund, which helps victims of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, had only $175 million and could be depleted as soon as today. Congress has been gridlocked over legislation to provide additional funds to the agency, specifically whether some of the new funding should be offset by cuts in other government spending.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, responds to a question from the audience Saturday during a town hall forum in the North Country Community College Petty Lecture Hallin Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Last week, Owens voted against a House continuing resolution to keep the government operating through mid-November because he said it didn't provide enough resources to FEMA. The Senate had passed a bill containing $7 billion in disaster relief funding, but the House bill only included $3.65 billion for FEMA, $1 billion of which would have been offset by spending cuts to loans for companies developing fuel-efficient cars.
Speaking at Saturday's forum, Owens said he discussed the issue earlier in the week with Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld, and Peter Welch, D-Vt. Even though Owens was the only one of the four to oppose the bill, he said the group agreed on one thing.
"We all felt the amount of FEMA funding was too small," Owens said in response to a question about FEMA funding from Terry Gach of Trudeau Institute. "If you think that New York state suffered $3 billion in damage alone, the $3.6 billion that was included in the bill is clearly not going to meet the needs of FEMA, and the people who were affected by the disaster."
Although he didn't like the offsets that Republicans had suggested, Owens said he was willing to support them "in order to get this FEMA money to people."
Congress appears to have worked its way out of the dispute. The Senate returned to session Monday and approved a $2.7 billion infusion of disaster aid to FEMA as part of a one-week stopgap measure needed to avert a government shutdown. The House is expected to adopt the measure Thursday.
Later in Saturday's forum, Owens fielded questions from photographer Nathan Farb, who lives in Jay, about FEMA's response to the disaster. Farb said many of his neighbors, who lost everything, are getting "very, very low amounts of money" and raised concerns about the amount of federal bureaucracy people need to go through to get disaster assistance. Farb also questioned whether it makes sense for FEMA to pay money to help people rebuild now when the agency may later ask them to relocate because their homes are in a flood zone.
Owens answered the question generally, saying the process hasn't been perfect but FEMA is doing the best it can.
"We have a situation where people have been very badly hurt, FEMA comes in, there's a lot of pressure to get roads rebuilt and get people back to as close to their lives were as quickly as possible," Owens said. "Does that process mean that it's not going to follow as well as we might like? That's true, but FEMA, in my view, is acting reasonably in the process."
In addition to taking the audience's questions, Owens spoke several times about President Barack Obama's $447 billion American Jobs Act. He said the bill contains two important components, one of which would provide more resources for transportation and infrastructure projects.
"As I was coming here today, I probably passed five different construction sites that were either ongoing because of the storm, or have been recently completed," he said. "That means people were working and getting paid; they were buying asphalt, concrete and steel; and they're going to go back in the community and spend money. That's one of the ways to create demand. Unless you have demand, businesses won't hire."
If the federal government is going to spend money, Owens said it should focus on getting people into an estimated 3.2 million unfilled jobs across the country. Owens said there are about 2,600 unfilled jobs in New York's 23rd Congressional District, which he represents.
"If we were to put 3.2 million people back to work, we would reduce the unemployment rate by close to 2 percent," he said. "We need to focus on that opportunity in order to bring people back into the work force."
Owens also spoke about how "dysfunctional" Congress has been of late.
"That is probably the thing that troubles me the most - that frequently we're unable to even reach an understanding on what the facts are, even if we differ in the conclusions and the application of ideology to those facts," Owens said. "As we go forward, we need to bring back into the discuss a positive conversation of how we're going to solve the problems, not a negative conversation about what's wrong with the other person's thought or point of view."