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FEMA should reverse decision

A Long Island Rail Road employee disinfects a

A Long Island Rail Road employee disinfects a train car with an eco-friendly cleaner while at the Hicksville LIRR station.   Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

It would seem that troubles couldn't get any worse for mass transit systems, or for state and local governments, after the U.S. Senate refused last week to provide any new stimulus money.

But on Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to make an absurd and wrongheaded decision — a rule change that would end future FEMA reimbursements to schools, public transit, courthouses, public housing and more for disinfecting, cleaning and personal protective equipment costs.

For schools that can only reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic with proper cleaning and protective supplies and that are already at risk of reduced funding, this would hit hard.

But for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which expects to spend as much as $500 million on such expenses in 2020, and similar amounts annually in the years ahead, this would be a particularly devastating blow when the MTA's finances are in dire shape.

The MTA had spent $160 million as of June on such expenses, and hasn't seen any reimbursement from FEMA, which had committed to paying 75% of those costs. That's not much of a surprise given the agency's entrenched bureaucracy, but it doesn't help as the MTA attempts to survive this crisis. Until now, there was at least the hope of reimbursement. Now, FEMA is saying there won't be any dollars for future expenditures.

While the rule is a national one, it would disproportionately affect a state like New York, where the public transit and school systems are massive and have tremendous needs. The federal government seems to be trying to kill the state of New York piece by piece.

FEMA's job is to prevent, mitigate and respond to disasters. But FEMA bizarrely argues that "the operation of schools and other public facilities … are not immediate actions necessary to protect public health and safety." But FEMA's funds don't pay for the operation of schools and the MTA. Its funds cover the very items and activities "necessary to protect public health and safety." For New Yorkers, this is an immediate, urgent need. President Donald Trump has demanded a full resumption of schools and economic activity, but without PPE and proper cleaning equipment and practices that is next to impossible.

If the FEMA decision is part of a larger, vindictive, ugly and political pushback against Democratic states like New York, Trump needs to realize that by hurting New York, he's hurting the entire country. New York is a critical economic engine, responsible for nearly 10% of the nation's gross domestic product. Without a comeback here, there won't be a full comeback anywhere. 

Rep. Lee Zeldin advocates the continuation of the FEMA funding, and says there's bipartisan support for it. He should do all he can to convince the White House to reverse the change. If that doesn’t happen, Congress should act to restore the FEMA coverage.

FEMA's mission is to protect the nation's health and safety. That means making sure the MTA, schools, and other public facilities are equipped with PPE and cleaning supplies. And that means putting an end to playing politics with people's lives.

— The editorial board