Saturday, September 24, 2016

Floods could also drown local, state road budgets

This week’s massive rains in Western Wisconsin has led to widescale flooding and two deaths in Vernon County, and many communities are trying to deal with the effects. These include damaged roads and public buildings that led to several school closings, and you can click on this Ready Wisconsin summary from Friday afternoon to see how widespread the damage is, and which detours you might have to take in the coming days if you’re in that part of the state.

The Wisconsin State Journal's Rob Schultz also had a good summary of the damage to roads and crops in the area,
and here's a sample.
There have been two weather-related deaths in Vernon County, where officials put damage to roads and bridges at between $2 million and $3 million. Flood warnings continue there as well as in Crawford and Richland counties due to heavy rainfall earlier this week on already saturated ground. The latest fatality was Joseph Menne, 79, of rural Viroqua, who drowned Thursday after his cattle truck jackknifed on a flooded road in Vernon County and he couldn’t get out of the cab in the rising water, the Vernon County Sheriff’s Office said....

As of Friday evening, Vernon County officials were reporting that about 60 roads were either closed or partially closed due to high water. That included Highway 35 near Victory, where Michael McDonald, 53, died Thursday morning when a mudslide sent his home down a bluff and onto the highway. Two other vehicles were struck by mudslide debris on the highway in the same area and one person suffered minor injuries, according to the state Emergency Operations Center.

In Crawford County, crews from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and elsewhere were repairing tracks alongside Highway 35 where an apparent washout caused two locomotives and five railroad cars to derail near Ferryville. Roads also were closed in and around Gays Mills, Soldiers Grove and Steuben.

In Richland County, preliminary reports showed one house destroyed and three with major damage due to the floods, and 40 other homes reported minor damage, according to the Emergency Operations Center. Damage to homes was estimated at $300,000. Roads were closed around Viola and Rockbridge.

Governor Walker has already sent in a State of Emergency request for this week’s floods in Western Wisconsin, which gets emergency officials and the National Guard ready to help communities stem the tide from the damage. And the state is also poised to give financial help to communities to fix the damages from major storms like we’ve seen this week, as noted under State Statute 86.34. And here's a different statute to describe how the reimbursement system works for local communities who wish to get state assistance.
When any highway is damaged by a disaster, the county highway committee, or the governing body of the municipality having jurisdiction over the maintenance of the highway, may adopt a petition for aid under this section and file a certified copy of the petition with the department. To be eligible for aid the petition shall be filed not later than 2 months after the occurrence of the disaster damage, except as provided in par. (b). All such petitions shall state the dates on which the disaster damage occurred and as nearly as practical state the location, nature, and extent of the damage.

(b) The department may extend the filing deadline under par. (a) if it appears reasonably likely that federal disaster aid may be forthcoming or when widespread or continuous disaster damage makes an evaluation of damage difficult. …

(2) The department shall make such investigation as it deems necessary and within 6 months from the date of filing the petition shall make its determination as to the granting of aid, the amount thereof, and the conditions under which it is granted. In making its determination the department shall cause an estimate to be made of the cost of repairing or replacing the facilities damaged or destroyed to standards and efficiency similar to those existing immediately before the damage or destruction, and also an estimate of the cost of reconstructing the facilities to a higher type or improving any such facilities if determined to be warranted and advisable. Except as provided in [small or large damages] the amount of aid payable for damage caused by a [tornado, flood or similar natural disaster] shall be 75 percent of the cost of repair or replacement to standards similar to those existing immediately before the damage or destruction, plus 50 percent of the increased cost of the reconstruction to a higher type or the improvement of any of the facilities. Except as provided in [small and large damages] , the amount of aid payable for damage caused by [damage as a result of the response to the natural disaster] shall be 70 percent of the cost of repair or replacement to standards similar to those existing immediately before the damage or destruction. The department may revise estimates on the basis of additional facts. The county, town, village, or city shall pay the remainder of the cost not allowed as aid, but this shall not invalidate any other provision of the statutes whereby the cost may be shared by the county and the town, village, or city.
There is $1 million set aside in the Transportation Fund to handle the relatively smaller repairs that are needed for various weather events. But once we get past $1 million, and especially in the case of large-scale disasters, there is a different fund that is tapped, and this uses General Fund money to make up the difference.
Beginning in the 2nd fiscal year of the 2013-15 fiscal biennium, and in the 2nd fiscal year of each fiscal biennium thereafter, the department shall calculate the amount of aid paid under this section, during the biennium, in excess of $1,000,000, in connection with disaster damage resulting from a single disaster. The amount calculated under this subsection shall be transferred under s. 20.855 (4) (fr) from the general fund to the transportation fund in the 2nd fiscal year of each fiscal biennium.
$6.5 million in General Fund money is budgeted for this fiscal year, but because the fund is “sum-sufficient”, it means that any amount over that has to be paid out. So if these large-scale floods result in damages that run well over that $6.5 million, and we don’t get federal aid to make up some of that difference, that’ll cause more strain on the General Fund budget. And it’s not like there’s that much breathing room to begin with.

The Feds did step up to offer assistance for the storms up North in July, as President Obama signed a disaster declaration on August 9, which allows for the affected areas to ask for FEMA reimbursement for their damaged facilities and roads. This also takes the state off the hook for much of the cost, which helps quite a bit. But we haven’t seen the same for the floods earlier this month near the Mississippi River, and we are obviously tallying up the totals from this week’s massive storms (hopefully there isn’t more to come, with more rain forecast this weekend).

In addition, one complication is that the local communities have to get the washed-out roads repaired first, then send the state the bill for reimbursement. This is with those communities often being small, rural places without much in terms of cash or annual spending, and without knowing exactly when the state will send money to them. This problem was illustrated in an article from a couple of weeks ago where a Buffalo County town chairman mentioned how his area was cleaning up from the massive downpours in early September.
The Town of Gilmanton completed temporary repairs to four flood-damaged roads. Some washed-out paved roads were replaced with gravel, for instance. Three more roads are still closed to traffic.

“They’re not permanent repairs, but they’re passable,” explained Meier. “Permanent repairs — I don’t know how long that will take, maybe years.” The cost of flood repairs dwarf the spending township governments such as the Town of Gilmanton normally take on, and the way state and federal disaster assistance works, local governments must first pay for repairs themselves and then get reimbursement for the majority of the costs. Meier said his township does not have enough money on hand right now to pay for more substantial repairs. On one dead end road that is the only way in and out for its residents, the township did enough work so residents could get by, but full repairs may cost around $100,000. “I could name any one of these roads [that would] would eat up our budget,” Meier said. “Our only avenue I see is borrowing the money, setting up loans,” he added. The Town Board has not yet discussed whether to do that, and if it decides to take out loans, that process will take time, too. “Some roads we may never reopen because the costs are just too prohibitive,” Meier said, speaking his personal opinion. “People want things settled and cleaned up quickly, but some of these things can’t be cleaned up quickly,” he continued.
Adding to this strain is that local governments in Wisconsin are finalizing their budgets over the next 6-8 weeks, and there’s either going to be a lot of hoping and praying that these bills are paid back by the state and the feds, or plans for what is repaired in 2017 may need major changes because of new needs and/or reserves being drained to clean up the flood damage.

Obviously, there is no good time for floods like this, and I wish these areas the best as they deal with this horrible disruption. But with local road funding already squeezed and communities barely able to keep up with regular maintenance, this is especially problematic. Keep your eyes on this going ahead, because well after the water recedes, the fiscal problems could continue and multiply, especially if the State of Wisconsin has to shell out money in the coming months for the repair for the majority of this damage (or worse, if they don’t or won’t).

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