April 09, 2020

FEMA details help in Sunrise County

MACHIAS — Washington County municipal officials turned out in force Tuesday to learn what storm-related expenses will be reimbursed by the state and federal government.

The session explained the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program for state and local governments, Indian tribes, and some private nonprofit organizations.

According to those who spoke, FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of eligible costs and the state program will contribute another 15 percent. The remaining 10 percent must be covered by local government, according to George Jones of FEMA. Jones said teams of investigators will visit each municipality that applies for reimbursement to determine eligible expenses.

More than 87 people from 30 communities attended the afternoon meeting at the University of Maine at Machias and some did not like what they heard.

Of particular concern were eligibility requirements that prohibit reimbursing towns for paying volunteer firefighters and the private contractors who put in extra hours clearing and maintaining roads after the Jan. 8 ice storm.

Jones and Helene Whitehouse of the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) said towns that don’t normally pay firefighters cannot pay them for their storm-related work and expect the government to pick up that cost. If a municipality contracts with a private individual or company to plow and sand town roads, additional payments beyond the contract price won’t be reimbursed, they said.

Some of those in the audience predicted that next year’s bids on town road contracts would escalate. One road contractor said most storms require 24 hours of road work. This storm took more than 100 hours, he said.

“We’re going to be paying for this next year and for 100 years down the road,” said one municipal official.

“Hopefully, there will be a clause in next year’s contract,” Whitehouse responded.

Whiting administrative assistant Alan Brooks said he was concerned that a town’s inability to pay firefighters would result in the loss of volunteers.

Verill Worcester of Columbia said he believes there is a state statute that permanently changes a town volunteer fire department to a town paid department once firefighters are paid for their service.

The discussion of volunteer firefighters and private contractors came an hour into the meeting as Jones and Whitehouse outlined how the reimbursement program will operate.

Expenses that are eligible for reimbursement include overtime pay and additional fringe benefits for town employees, including the public works department; additional town expenditures, such as the purchase of salt and sand; and any activity that was needed to restore facilities and eliminate immediate threats to pubic health or safety.

Hourly rates for the use of private generators for public purposes, but not the labor costs, are covered on a schedule provided by FEMA as is the use of private vehicles.

Towns, public schools, water supply districts, counties, cities, and Indian tribes are eligible for the funds and an administrative fee of up to 3 percent is included for the public agency that administers the emergency service or rebuilding program.

Prior to Tuesday’s presentation, Paul Thompson, the director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency, addressed the group. Thompson lambasted the Maine Department of Human Services emergency food voucher program, saying the message that went out was “free food for everyone.”

Thompson also blasted the media. He said they created a universal belief that everyone should buy a generator.

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