KEENE - The weather kept Gov. Andrew Cuomo from making the announcement in person, but the message was heard loud and clear: New York state will pay municipalities' share of recovery costs associated with last year's tropical storms Irene and Lee.
Darrell Aubertine, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, announced the news at a press conference Wednesday morning at the Keene Volunteer Fire Department. The fire station was among many structures along the AuSable River system that were destroyed when Irene tore through the region last August.
Cuomo had planned to travel to Keene to make the announcement himself, but his staff was concerned about visibility in the mountains because of isolated snow, hail and rain showers.
Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee thanks the state for its decision to pay the local share of recovery costs related to tropical storms Irene and Lee.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency generally pays 75 percent of disaster relief while the remaining 25 percent is split evenly between the state and local government. Now, for Irene and Lee, New York will pick up local governments' 12.5 percent share, statewide.
The towns of Jay and Keene saw some of the worst damage. Jay has borrowed millions of dollars to pay for cleanup and repairs.
"Some of the worst disaster to ever befall New York state happened, as we all know, last year, and the cost of that recovery has stretched community budgets beyond their limits," Aubertine said. "The preparation, recovery and rebuilding have cost localities millions they simply cannot afford."
Aubertine said total cleanup costs are expected to exceed $1.6 billion statewide. That means county and town governments would have been on the hook for millions of dollars, he said. In northern New York, those local shares were projected to surpass $2.5 million, Aubertine said.
"And as these local officials I'm sure would verify, that's a burden that they simply cannot afford," he said. "The lack of resources could jeopardize the recovery effort with communities, even holding off on critical projects."
The state will make $61 million available to 25 counties to help pay for things like emergency shelters, infrastructure repairs and other cleanup projects. Cuomo said in a prepared statement the funds will let communities move forward with those projects.
"During the storms and their aftermath, New Yorkers in an outpouring of goodwill came together to lend a hand to their neighbors, and now it is the state's turn to lend a hand to localities," he said.
Damage in Essex County has been estimated at nearly $15 million. The state will send the county more than $1.8 million to help offset recovery costs.
Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee was among numerous local government officials who flanked Aubertine at Wednesday's press conference. He said his town was able to meet the state's new property tax cap last year, but it had to eliminate some services to do so.
"With this cost of the 12.5 percent that will not be laid on us, we can maybe put some of these things back in our budget for next year," Ferebee said.
"It's great news," he added. "It's great for all of our taxpayers."
Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas, who chairs Essex County's Board of Supervisors, was out of the area Wednesday and could not attend the press conference. He said in an email sent to local media outlets that the town of Jay could receive up to $360,000.
"I am so happy right now and am thrilled for our Town of Jay and Essex County residents that are struggling to survive," Douglas wrote.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said in a phone interview that his office has heard concerns from Essex County officials about recovery costs.
"We're delighted the state is coming forward with this kind of funding because it's essential to cleanup and to preventing any kind of reoccurrence," he said.
Ferebee said the additional help from the state is further proof of Cuomo's commitment to the North Country. Aubertine said "there's no question" that Cuomo loves the Adirondacks.
"He's going to do all he can to help us recover, not only here, but all across the state," Aubertine said.