U.S. Rep. Bill Owens introduced legislation Tuesday that would grant authority to the U.S. Department of State to waive passport fees for people who lost them in a natural disaster.
The Democrat from New York's 23rd Congressional District said many residents in flood-torn North Country communities lost "untold amounts of property," including important documents like passports, property deeds and birth certificates. Owens said the Passport Replacement Fee Waiver Act of 2011 would save upwards of $100 for flood victims who need to get new international passports.
Owens' spokesman Sean Magers told the Enterprise the bill would cover residents in any county designated a federal disaster area. So victims of spring flooding in Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, and those impacted by tropical storms Irene and Lee, could replace passports without being charged a replacement fee.
"As New York begins to rebuild ... it is critical that we provide all the support available to New Yorkers to get their lives back in order," Owens said in a prepared statement. "Many New Yorkers in our district frequently travel to Canada for business or pleasure, and they don't need to be hit with a $110 passport replacement fee during financially trying times."
The bill was born out of several meetings with constituents, as well as county clerks from across the North Country.
"This is exciting news," said Essex County Clerk Joe Provoncha.
Provoncha said that after Irene hit, he and his staff took computers to the towns of Jay and Keene to help make copies of deeds, mortgages and other documents lost in the flood. He later called a passport agency and asked how residents could duplicate their passports.
"They said, 'They're going to have to pay the full amount for replacement,'" Provoncha said, "and I was infuriated."
Provoncha then called both Owens and Congressman Chris Gibson for help. He said Owens convened a meeting of county clerks to hear their concerns.
"This wasn't a situation where someone went swimming and left their passport in their pocket," Provoncha said. "If they had completed the appropriate forms, they should be able to come into our office and get the replacement passport free of charge."
A replacement passport actually costs more than $110, according to Provoncha. It costs an additional $8 for a new picture and another $25 for the processing fee, for a total of about $143, "even if you only have a year or two left before it expires," Provoncha said.
Owens said the State Department refused to waive passport replacement fees and would not process applications without proper documentation, like a birth certificate. He wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October and asked that those policies be reconsidered.
"These policies constitute an additional hardship for many of my constituents who are already bearing the enormous costs of rebuilding their lives," Owens wrote.
David Adams, assistant secretary for Legislative Affairs at the Department of State, responded to Owens request. He said the department is "sympathetic to the plight" of flood victims, but that it doesn't have the legal authority to waive passport fees.
Adams said federal regulations severely limit who can get exemptions from passport fees. He added that the State Department can waive the $150 file search fee required to confirm citizenship or identity for those who can't wait for an official copy.
If passed, Owens' legislation would grant the state department the authority it needs to provide exemptions. Provoncha said that would be a step in the right direction.
"It shows compassion from the government," he said. "If you go through a natural disaster, you never fully recover everything you lost."