Long Island Tallies Cost of IreneBy ROBBIE WHELAN And ANDREW GROSSMAN
The Wall Street Journal
September 6, 2011
The costs of cleaning up after Tropical Storm Irene come at a particularly tough time for Long Island's cash-strapped governments.
Even before the storm, both Nassau and Suffolk counties faced steep budget deficits and possible cuts to county jobs. With Irene felling trees, flooding roads and causing nagging power problems that appeared to finally be at an end Monday, an expensive cleanup could further dent their finances.
"Irene didn't just blow holes in people's houses and businesses. It blew holes in city and town budgets," said Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead.
Officials are looking to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fill much of that hole. They remain confident the money will come, despite some uncertainty in
Congress over funding the agency, which is facing a budget shortfall. Both Nassau and Suffolk governments have been declared eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.
"One way or another, we have to get the money," said Rep. Peter King, a Nassau Republican.
In Suffolk County, which faces a $179 million budget deficit, cleanup costs are expected to be high, said County Executive Steve Levy. It will be cushioned in part by a $60 million "tax stabilization fund," which can be used, with special approval, to pay for emergency costs.
But Suffolk, too, is counting on federal reimbursements help it through the disaster, which damaged traffic signals, eroded beaches, destroyed bulkheads and ran up overtime bills. "The local taxpayers can't afford to absorb these kinds of costs. They tax you to the gills out here," Mr. Levy said. "But we're pretty sure we'll get the lion's share of what we need."
Frequently storm-battered Long Island didn't receive the worst damage from Irene. But it was hit with power failures that at their peak saw 523,000 Long Island Power Authority customers without electricity. The outages lasted until Monday, far longer than in harder-hit areas, and drew the ire of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "They say it was a communications issue, that they have done better than before. Whatever it was, it wasn't acceptable," Mr. Cuomo said Monday in Brooklyn.
Jay Becker, a retired teacher who lives in Syosset, was without power until Wednesday. He said he called LIPA repeatedly but didn't get a response until crews just showed up at his house.
"They won't fix [our service] unless I make waves," said Plainview resident Aaron Polkes. He said outages are a persistent problem in his neighborhood. "I've written them letters. I've called them, they're just indifferent and the rates have gone up."
The extended failures were the result of "island-wide devastation" that made quick restoration of power a challenge, LIPA spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said on Monday. She acknowledged the authority had problems communicating with customers and said it would examine its strategy for future storms.
Long Island officials did not put a total pricetag on damage to the area. Mr. Cuomo has put the storm's economic cost at $1 billion for the state.
In harder-hit upstate Orange County, damage to infrastructure could end up costing $20 million, County Executive Ed Diana said. There, roads and bridges need major repairs, some of which might not be completed until spring. Mr. Diana expects the federal government to pay most of the costs.
Whatever the cost on Long Island, it could put pressure on strained budgets. The financial situation is most dire in Nassau, which in January handed over control of its coffers to a state oversight board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.
In August, NIFA ordered County Executive Ed Mangano to plug a $140 million hole in Nassau's budget. Mr. Mangano, who declined interview requests, has resisted raising taxes in his county. Earlier this month, voters rebuffed his plan to raise $400 million in state-issued bonds to build a new arena for the New York Islanders.
A spokesman for Mr. Mangano, Brian Nevin, said he expected the county will be reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of cleanup. The amount of aid the state would seek isn't yet clear; Federal resources don't always match state requests dollar for dollar.