Federal disaster-relief money still uncertain after storm

Sean Philip Cotter

York City has to wait and hope that federal disaster relief is on the way to help deal with a snowstorm that blew through the city's entire snow-removal budget all by itself.

The city budgeted about $160,000 for snow removal in 2016, Mayor Kim Bracey has said, and the one big storm on Jan. 22 and 23 wiped just about all of that money out by dropping about 2½ feet of snow on the city.

Between that chunk and efforts following a few more minor snowfalls, the city has spent "probably in excess of $200,000" this year, city public works director Jim Gross said.

But York City could be reimbursed by the federal government for about $79,500 of that, Gross said.

In the midst of the storm, the city issued a disaster declaration, which Gross at the time said would aim to "get us in line" for some federal relief dollars. The city can be reimbursed for a portion of the money spent in one 48-hour period of the storm, so they figured out the two-day window when the most money was spent, which was pretty much directly after the storm, Gross said.

State: The state government also has issued a disaster declaration for the part of the state hit hardest by the storm, a region including York County, according to the office of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat from Mount Wolf.

On Monday, Wolf's office issued a news release saying he was urging President Barack Obama to declare a disaster in Pennsylvania, too, which would set the wheels in motion to get the relief money coming to as many as 31 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, which would then be filtered down to the municipalities.

"The federal government has the final approval," Gross said.

The release says the governor's office doesn't know if or when the president will decide one way or the other on making the declaration.

The emergency funding wouldn't be unprecedented: The last time the city — by way of the county, as the federal money flows — received federal aid was after Superstorm Sandy in fall 2012, according to Gross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

Conditions: The release from Wolf's office says several conditions must exist for the federal government to issue a disaster declaration, and it contends those conditions indeed have been met. First off, "a record or near-record snowfall event must occur within the county" for the county; also, costs during a continuous 48-hour period and any other emergency protective measures must end up more than $3.56 per person in the county, the release states.

Both of those apply to York County, according to the release, as well as to at least 25 other counties in the state. The release says five additional counties had enough snow but at this point appear to be below the per-capita threshold.

The other stipulation is that the costs across all counties for which this applies in the state hit a threshold of $17.9 million.

The release from Wolf's office says the municipalities in the 31 counties — including the five that at this point are calculated to be below the per-capita threshold — have combined to spend more than $55 million.

"We qualify for the assistance, but the decision is made at the federal level," wrote Ruth Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, in an email. She wrote she wasn't in a position to speculate on the likelihood of a federal disaster declaration.

City fund: If the city doesn't receive federal money — or if it's not enough to bring the city's snow-removal efforts back below the amount budgeted — the city will draw on its liquid fuels fund, which comes from a tax that's existed since the 1950s on fuels such as gas and oil. The money raised by the tax that ends up in the fund is earmarked for maintaining a municipality's streets local, by paying for things such as road work, traffic-control devices and street sweeping.

"We think we have enough of a fund to cover the cost" beyond what was budgeted, even without federal money, at this point, Gross said.

Though, of course, winter isn't yet over, and another significant storm isn't outside of the realm of possibility, Gross acknowledged. If another big storm did hit, there's the chance it could eat up so much of the liquid fuels fund that it would cut down on the amount of road work or other similar operations the city would be able to do this year, he said.

York City Public Works employee Paul Bievenour clears a walkway on Continental Square, Sunday January 24, 2016. (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)
Snow continues to accumulate during Winter Storm Jonas in York, Pa. on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

"That's always a possibility," he said.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com.