Editor’s Note: The following is a letter sent by Ithaca Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials about the need to improve local governments’ access to state funding in the event of flooding and other weather-related disasters.

Lifton’s letter cites the flooding that devastated the Tompkins County town of Newfield last June; read the Ithaca Voice’s full coverage of that crisis here.

Submit guest columns to the Ithaca Voice at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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Barbara Lifton (File photo)

ITHACA, N.Y. — I am writing to you about the ever-increasing problem of serious localized flooding that has occurred after a torrential downpour of the sort that communities have never experienced. In 2013, the Town Enfield, here in Tompkins County, received 5 inches of rain in 4 hours and saw extensive flooding that affected homes and roads in unprecedented ways.

Flooding has also been a concern in the City of Ithaca, especially in light of the deferred dredging of the Cayuga Inlet, which puts the city at increased risk. The City of Ithaca saw flooding in the winter of 2014 as a result of ice jams in city creeks and flooding has occurred in low-lying residential neighborhoods.

This year, it is the Town of Newfield that saw a deluge, on June 14th hours. It sent numerous families out of their homes for many weeks, wrecked havoc on three state highways (which, fortunately, DOT came quickly to repair) and many local roads, bridges, culverts and driveways. The expense of clean up and repair after these extraordinary events is enormous — in the case of Newfield it is $770,000, about half of their whole annual budget and wiping out their entire highway budget, leaving them unable to undertake other critical road work which they had planned to do.

With high property taxes already and the tax cap in effect, it is next to impossible for these low- property wealth towns to raise extra revenue and their reserves are almost depleted from several years of tax caps and budget-cutting. And, because these storms are localized rather than widespread across a county or region, their total damages do not get close to the FEMA threshold of $27 million to trigger a federal declaration and receive federal, and by extension, state assistance.

Both Tompkins County and numerous of my towns have applied for hazard mitigation grants in the past to do work to try to prevent such major damage, but they had little success in attaining those grants, which are undoubtedly very competitive and are funded at a level that is completely inadequate, given the needs and problems local governments have been facing.

Another important on-going and closely-related issue is that of stream maintenance – which streams are designated by DEC as protected streams and how they are – or are not – maintained, and by whom. Some local officials say that there are creeks that are dry for 5 or 6 months of the year and yet are designated as protected streams, so that, even though they have filled up with rocks and debris, they cannot be cleaned out, as needed, to help prevent flooding. Locals also say that when the DEC agrees to issue a permit for stream maintenance, the permitting process is so long as to make timely work impossible.

A photo from the flooding that hit Newfield last June

New state standards, due to the acknowledgment of changing climate and necessary as they no doubt are, also add to the expense for local governments. The state has mandated larger culverts, adding considerable, over 4 inches of rain in a matter of expense to any project.

For one project in Newfield, just the cost of the required culvert is $62,000. There are additional costs for engineering work, backfill material and costs associated with requirements from the Army Corp of Engineers. This all adds up to a lot of money for a small town for one project.

There is also a lack of clarity about the status of CHIPs funding. I was told that local governments can roll over unused CHIPs funding into the following year, but that it is “frowned upon” by the state. When a small town has spent most of the summer and fall season cleaning up after a flooding disaster, they have not had the staff or equipment to do the projects they had planned to do with CHIPs funding. To have any threat at all of losing their CHIPs funding — on top of the very difficult circumstances with which they have been dealing — adds insult to injury. It needs to be made very clear that communities that have had such significant events must not risk lose CHIPs funding.

All of which is to urge that I believe we, as a state, should change the way we are dealing with very significant local climate events such as severe flash flooding. We should no longer take the stance that FEMA needs to designate a federal emergency, based on their threshold of $27 million, which usually means many localities have been affected by a weather event, before the state will provide state assistance to a locality.

More localized, erratic and severe weather events are clearly happening, which means one small community may have a real (and very expensive) disaster that has little impact on neighboring towns. I have seen this clearly here in Tompkins County, with Enfield being very hard hit in 2013, and then Newfield this year. While our towns and county offer mutual aid at the time of the disaster, all that has to be paid for, of course.

But by whom? Clearly, these severe weather events are out of the control of local governments; therefore I strongly urge that the state create a State Flood Relief Program with a new and reasonable threshold for state assistance to municipalities in such circumstances. I urge that such a program be put in place in tandem with this year’s budget. I also urge that any currently available state funding be used to help communities such as Newfield and Enfield recover from recent flooding, or that a state relief program be made retro-active to assist with such local recovery. I am fairly certain that there are other communities around the state who are still struggling to recover from past weather disasters and would also benefit.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.