Nassau to spend millions more on Sandy debris removal

A LIPA Tree Clearance Crew removes downed trees A LIPA Tree Clearance Crew removes downed trees from Sandy on Lefferts Rd. near Bayberry Ave. in Garden City. (Oct. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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Nassau lawmakers agreed Monday to increase payments to a Huntington firm to a total of nearly $70 million for removing damaged trees and cleaning up other debris left by superstorm Sandy.

The legislature's Rules Committee unanimously approved the county's emergency hiring of Looks Great Services for an additional $32.5 million to cover the costs of tree removal and $16.287 million for cleanup of debris at Nickerson Beach. The committee in December approved an initial $20 million to Looks Great for tree debris removal.

The county is hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse as much as 90 percent of the costs. Deputy Public Works Commissioner Richard Millet said FEMA already has approved $55 million in debris removal bills.

County officials say the company was one of four recommended by the federal government and was selected by Nassau in 2009 to be part of its debris management plan. It was the only one of the four that could provide all the crews and equipment needed after Sandy, officials said.

Looks Great drew criticism in November when company crews chopped down 111 trees in Nassau's Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove.

The firm later threatened to sue Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) for defamation after she asked questions about the tree cutting during a legislative meeting. DeRiggi-Whitton, who does not sit on the Rules Committee, was ruled out of order Monday by Finance Committee chairman Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) when she attempted to ask about Looks Great.

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But Republicans and Democrats expressed concern about trees felled along Searingtown and Shelter Rock roads in North Hempstead.

"There has to be a couple of football fields long of stumps" along Searingtown Road, Nicolello said.

In other matters:

Republicans insisted that County Executive Edward Mangano provide more details before the legislature approves a plan to waive county fees for residents whose homes and businesses suffered damage from Sandy.

"I don't think we can just pass a resolution that blanketly waives all fees," said Nicolello, who is also deputy presiding officer. "I think we need to know what fees."

Mangano aide Greg May said the fees most likely to be waived would be for disconnecting and reconnecting sewers, and for pre-demolition inspection by the health department.

Republicans and Democrats clashed on contracts for two Garden City law firms -- $200,000 to Berkman, Henoch, Peterson, Peddy & Fenchel, where Nassau GOP leader Joseph Mondello is "of counsel," and $250,000 to Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker to represent Nassau in lawsuits by county employees for asbestos exposure at Nassau Coliseum. So far, plaintiffs have filed 117 notices of claim.

Democrats asked why the county attorney couldn't be used for the work. Chief Deputy County Attorney Lisa LoCurto responded that the outside firms had the required expertise for the jobs.Lawmakers also agreed tentatively to increase money borrowed to pay for new tree plantings from $1 million to $3.5 million. Millet said officials have not decided what kind of trees will be planted.

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