Storm relief funds slow coming
WORTHINGTON -- In the final hours of the 2013 session, the state legislature passed money to help five southwest Minnesota counties recover from the April ice storm.
The bill passed included $1.5 million to match the funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as $250,000 to help with other debris removal and long-term recovery.
“It gets allocated to the areas that were specified for the unmet need that was defined under the statutes,” said District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who helped push the bill through the House of Representatives.
However, of the $250,000 allocated, only $30,858.45 was distributed, according to letters sent from Angela Brown from the Minnesota Recovers Task Force — a division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM).
“Minnesota law directs money appropriated under this statute to be used only for technical assistance or to provide assistance in coordinating long-term recovery activities,” HSEM External Affairs Coordinator Julie Anderson said. “The Minnesota Recovers Task Force determined the applications it received did not meet the statutory requirements.”
There is $219,141.55 that was not disbursed.
“When we were going through this, there was the intent — my intent and the other legislators in the area — to draft that language so those dollars can and would be used for the unmet needs as far as to assist with recovery from that natural disaster,” Hamilton said.
“You have all these different pots of money,” he explained. “All these dollars get transferred from one to the other because under the qualifications on one pot, it may not necessarily fall under the definition to receive those funds. So, they transfer money from one account into another because you may or may not be able to access it through that.
“It’s convoluted. We wanted to keep it simple, streamline it and get additional dollars to help the area in need. Now, they come out with this and, like I said, it’s BS.”
In a separate letter to Gov. Mark Dayton, Nobles County identified more than $1.1 million in expenses not covered by FEMA. However, the Minnesota Recovers Task Force allocated $1,300 to Nobles County.
“That’s what it says,” Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said. “We’re trying to figure out, ‘Really?’ It doesn’t say what it’s for, it doesn’t say why. It just says, ‘Your award is.’”
In three of the counties, no money was awarded.
“I got a big goose egg,” Rock County Administrator/Emergency Management Director Kyle Oldre said. “I think we figured they were going to come up with some formulary basis to kind of distribute it. That was the intent, or what we thought the intent was.
“Until they explain it to us, I don’t know what they used as a basis,” he added. “ I just don’t know. We were very surprised, as well.”
Murray and Jackson counties were also not awarded any money. Cottonwood County received the biggest share, collecting $29,558.45.
“When we were accepting applications, I did not turn away any individuals that wanted to apply, even though our focus was on groups like cemeteries and churches and things like that,” Cottonwood County Emergency Management Director Kimberly Hall said. “Because the guidance wasn’t clear to us, our county board decided to accept all applications and we would prioritize them when we sent our application in.”
According to the bill — signed May 24 — the money was to cover language in two state statutes. The first statute states it will provide grants “for costs related to the burial and removal of debris resulting from the disaster from residences and farms.”
It was that statute that was cited in the letter to each county to justify each award.
Within the letter to Nobles County, it states, “It was determined that the majority of the scope of work that was presented falls under the assistance of a federal agency (FEMA). The scope of work for tree replacement and additional trimming is not eligible under state statute for debris removal from residential or farm areas.”
However, the second subdivision included in the bill passed by the legislature was for “grants to counties, regional consortia and nonprofit organizations working in the disaster area to provide assistance in coordinating long-term recovery activities related to the disaster.”
“We submitted applications with what we thought was the guidance we had,” Oldre said. “We got back a big goose egg saying that’s not what it was meant to be. We had conference calls and meetings. Tell us what your expectations are, and we’ll certainly try to conform. It’s been a challenge.”
Special session could provide more funding
Gov. Mark Dayton tried to get legislative leaders to back his plan to send Nobles and Rock counties $1 million, his spokesman said, but they would not go along.
“The governor has been a strong, strong advocate for providing that funding,” Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said. “But in his conversation with legislative leaders and legislative membership, he just can’t find support for it. There seems to be strong bipartisan opposition. ... He said he has tried to be as persuasive as he possibly can.”
Swenson said that $219,000 in grants available to Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington are in the bill in part because of Dayton’s efforts.
Still, the special disaster-relief session was not officially set as of early Thursday evening.
Today is the deadline Dayton gave for four legislative leaders to agree to specific details in a disaster-relief bill. Once they agree, Dayton said he will sign an order calling lawmakers into special session on Monday.
“At this point, it hasn’t been agreed to by all five leaders,” Swenson said.
No public opposition had surfaced to the two parts of the bill:
- $4.5 million to help 18 counties recover from June 20-26 floods.
- Giving Rock and Nobles counties $219,000 in grants, an amount the southwest Minnesota communities have not been able to collect after legislators approved giving them $250,000 earlier this year.
Swenson said legislative leaders are reviewing bill language, but he did not know if an in-person meeting is needed today. No meetings are scheduled for the governor and legislative leaders.
Only the governor can call a special session, and a deal in writing with legislative leaders restricting what will be debated is usually required.
A week ago, Dayton said he would insist that $1 million be appropriated to Nobles and Rock counties for ice storm recovery. But minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he would not allow that money to be sent to southwest Minnesota because other disaster-relief efforts, such as one in his northeast Minnesota area a year ago, did not get that kind of aid.
At least one version of the disaster legislation now circulating makes it easier for Nobles and Rock counties and the city of Worthington to get access to $250,000 in aid the Legislature approved in May. Bakk said he would accept that concept, although it was just a quarter of the amount Dayton sought.
The draft of the bill states the remaining $219,141 would be moved to the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
“HSEM is required to follow specific criteria set forth in Minnesota law regarding disaster funding for debris removal and long-term recovery efforts,” Anderson said. “Using this criteria, HSEM approved $30,858.45 for Cottonwood and Nobles counties. The proposed legislation would enable the remaining funds to be transferred to DEED for economic development recovery efforts.”
From there, the money would be distributed by grants. According to the bill, the city of Worthington would receive $99,141.
“We are certainly appreciative of any additional resources to help Worthington with the extraordinary expense related to federally- declared disaster,” Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark said. “The unfortunate reality of the nature of our ice storm was that many of the related expenses were non-FEMA eligible for reimbursement and make it difficult for a city that levies $3 million a year to accommodate unplanned expenses of $935,000.”
Rock County and Nobles County would each get $60,000.
“I was surprised,” Oldre said. “We can put it to good use. We as a county and as municipalities within the county incurred costs, and we’ll apply it accordingly.”
Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.