FEMA comes to town, board discusses fees

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | FEMA officals met with the Town Board to discuss recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy.

The federal government descended on the Town Board at Tuesday’s work session.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in the form of a baker’s dozen of officials, came to talk about recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy and plans for future crises brought  on by Mother Nature.

Also on the agenda was raising  town fees, with agreement that some things are going to cost more on Shelter Island.

The meeting opened  with the voice of Supervisor Jim Dougherty on speakerphone. The supervisor has been absent from Town Hall for weeks, hospitalized  for a viral infection while battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He thanked the board for picking up the slack and said he had made a decision to put his wife, Nancy, who has been suffering from an extended illness, into hospice care.

Deputy Supervisor Christine Lewis then welcomed the FEMA team. Curtis Vreeland, a deputy director of the federal agency described their presence as “a kickoff meeting,” explaining to the board what’s called the “National Disaster Recovery Framework,” a post-Katrina effort to coordinate all federal agencies to help communities in recovery efforts.

Police Chief Jim Read, who also heads the town’s emergency management committee, said Shelter Island has applied to be reimbursed $350,000 it spent on the response to, and recovery from, Hurricane Sandy. In the past the federal government, if it approved, would foot 75 percent of the bill and the state and town kicked in the balance. Now that’s changed to a 90 percent federal reimbursement, if approved, and the state and town picking up the remaining 10 percent. It might even work out that the state will take on the remaining 10 percent, but if not, the town will be on the hook for only 5 percent, the chief said.

Bryan Starr, community recovery specialist for FEMA, likened the agency to a corporation with $50 billion dollars – the amount approved by Congress for Sandy recovery efforts — to spend in four states. “Our profit is when you create a more resilient and sustainable community and are prepared for the future,” Mr. Starr said.

There were grants available for almost everything, Mr. Starr said, including re-landscaping town halls.

The official reiterated this was a preliminary meeting and the town should do an inventory of needs for the future and present it to FEMA at future meetings.

Chief Read mentioned that doing an inventory of needs requires time and effort that will be imposed on an undermanned staff.

The town was capable of a superior response to a natural disaster, he said, “but a recovery effort is a whole other realm.” He wasn’t looking to employ more people, he said, but everyone on his staff were wearing many hats and “recovery planning is not a hat I’m prepared to wear.”

The board turned to town fees when the visitors exited, with members agreeing it was a necessary evil to raise some of the more than 200 fees on the books.

With a 2 percent state-mandated cap on property taxes, municipalities have to find revenues somewhere, Ms. Lewis said. “We have to be mindful that we’re essentially asked to do more with less and meet the 2-percent cap,” she said. “If we’re not going to challenge that as unfair to a small place like ours, which is already holding the line on costs sometimes to a strangulation level, then we’re going to have to look at raising these fees.”

Councilman Peter Reich suggested looking at fees that have not changed over an extended period, such as commercial and private mooring applications, with some remaining at the same level for 13 years.

Councilman Ed Brown thought raising some fees for special exceptions on huge building projects should be on a sliding scale.

Also discussed was raising some parking fees for beach access, with the board discussing rates for week and weekend parking fees.

Councilman Paul Shepherd noted that the town was charging $50 for DVD’s of town meetings. Although saying that the sessions were “boring,” which produced laughter, Mr. Shepherd said it was a matter of public information. Other board members weighed in saying only one DVD was sold last year, and all Town Board business is on channel 22 and streamed over the Internet.

Mr. Reich had news about a resolution passed on Friday that authorized the town switching its email provider from Google to Microsoft. Mr. Reich said the original cost of $7 per user, per month had been cut in half to $3.50 per user by the town opting for a different level of service from Microsoft.