Sandy aid: Rockland advances in line; Westchester confused
A new blueprint on how to allocate $1.7 billion in the first major installment of superstorm Sandy relief funds has stupefied Westchester County officials, who contend it could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal aid.
An aide to County Executive Rob Astorino said that the funding formula, outlined in the "action plan" of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration for federal Housing and Urban Development block grants, puts Rockland County in line to share at least 80 percent of the funding pie along with Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties, but it relegates Westchester to split the remaining 20 percent with "all other eligible counties."
"We had three or four times more damage than Rockland," said Westchester County spokesman Phil Oliva. "It's peculiar that Rockland was listed as the most impacted and we had three times the recovery costs. It's a real head-scratcher."
In response, a Cuomo spokesman said Thursday afternoon that the state would ask HUD for a waiver to allow Westchester County to get the "maximum federal support possible." How such a waiver would work remained to be determined.
The action plan, which excludes New York City, sets aside the vast majority of HUD block grant funding -- $888 million -- for housing, economic development, infrastructure and retrofitting facilities against future storms in Nassau County. An additional $282 million is earmarked for Suffolk County in those categories, and $11 million is allocated for Rockland.
The remaining pot of $534.7 million for all other counties is listed as "other or to be allocated."
WESTCHESTER'S INFRASTRUCTURE DAMAGE
Despite putting Rockland before Westchester on the funding line, the counties are reversed in a state ranking for infrastructure projects that have applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency money. In that assessment of almost 3,000 projects, Westchester County's needs are set at $92.9 million and Rockland's are $18 million.
The infrastructure needs of other Hudson Valley counties are Orange, at $3.8 million; Ulster, $2.6 million; and Putnam, $1.9 million.
The overall estimate for infrastructure needs of Hudson Valley counties, excluding Sullivan, is $117.4 million and is included in the 58-page State of New York Action Plan for Community Development Block Grant Program Disaster Recovery.
Dutchess County was spared the worst of Sandy's damage and was not included in the disaster area, making it ineligible for federal funds.
Though Sandy triggered the push for federal aid, officials are instructed to also consider damage from prior disasters such as 2011's Tropical Storm Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which swept through the Hudson Valley.
Chris Jensen, program coordinator of the Rockland County Office of Fire and Emergency Services, said county officials and local municipalities have been waiting for Washington to open its funding spigot.
"This is a tremendous amount of money earmarked for Rockland County, for our residents to get back on solid ground," he said. The funding, he added, will let government "do some heavy lifting."
Jensen said money could be used for infrastructure and community planning. Some funding also could go to buy back homes with more than 50 percent damage in hard-hit Hudson River communities like Stony Point and Piermont.
Calls for comment on Westchester's grievances were not immediately returned by Rockland officials.
A SLOW PROCESS
Still, Jensen cautioned that unlike the FEMA funding doled out after the storm, the HUD program will take time.
"This is not a response program. This is a recovery program," he said. "I don't want people to think they can call tomorrow and get a check cut."
For instance, he said that mortgage companies could hold up home acquisition programs.
"If someone thinks their home would be acquired or razed before Labor Day, that would be misleading," he said.
New York's $1.7 billion in HUD funding is part of a $5.4 billion installment that provides $1.8 billion to New York City and $1.8 billion to New Jersey, with Connecticut, Maryland and Rhode Island dividing the remainder.
HOMES AND BUSINESSES DAMAGED
HUD did not factor infrastructure restoration in deciding which areas would be deemed the most impacted and distressed because of Congress' admonition to hasten the delivery of aid, according to a Federal Register entry.
Instead, HUD relied on data about damage to businesses and homes to determine the most impacted counties eligible for the 80 percent funding pool.
"We had to rely on the best available disaster data," said a HUD spokesman.
HUD rules, however, hold open the possibility that Westchester could displace Rockland on the list of most impacted counties when the remaining two-thirds of funding are delivered.
"HUD did not use data on infrastructure need for this first allocation, pending getting better information on infrastructure needs which will be used in a later allocation," according to the Federal Register.
HUD has to approve the state's action plan before it can release funding.