Luzerne County officials say it might take years to spend $25.4 million in federal funding allocated to fix lingering damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
County Manager Robert Lawton brought up the timeline at Tuesday’s council meeting because Councilman Stephen A. Urban has been publicly questioning why it’s taking so long to get the money to flood-damaged municipalities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is providing the funds to the county, made it clear the funding is “last-resort” money for work that won’t be covered by insurance or other government funds, Lawton said. That mandate has forced the county to ensure all other funding sources have been exhausted.
The federal agency indicated spending of the special funds might not wrap up for seven years after the disaster, or in September 2018, Lawton said.
County Community Development Director Andrew Reilly said some people have a “misconception” the funds were supposed to be quickly “pushed out on the street.”
He gave an example of why waiting is necessary. Shickshinny recently was awarded $323,498 in gambling funds for the Bartoli Bridge renovation, and that project also was in the borough’s request for the county flood recovery funds, he said. The project must be removed from the borough’s application for county funding, he said.
A county panel is reviewing requests from 12 municipalities and other government entities for funds from the initial federal award of $15.7 million. A separate screening process will be necessary for the recent second earmark of $9.7 million because the federal government has set different parameters on how that money may be spent, Reilly said.
The panel plans to submit proposed municipal projects to Lawton within a month, Reilly said. Lawton will then review the plan and submit it to council for its approval.
Some of the funding also will be awarded to property owners, who will be invited to apply around July 1, Lawton said.
Reilly said he expects the residential portion will fund repairs and the raising of utilities in properties on government buyout request lists that won’t be included in the latest wave of buyout funding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency only recently determined which pending buyout requests would be funded, Reilly said.
Some municipalities requested the county flood recovery funding for additional buyouts, but Reilly said that option must be reviewed.
“We have to see what the need is, but we anticipate the lion’s share of residential funding to go to rehabilitation,” he said.
Urban said Tuesday it is “downright wrong” to make citizens wait years to receive funding.
He also pointed to a deteriorating railroad bridge spanning the Susquehanna River in Exeter Township as a project in pressing need of demolition funding. Officials fear the bridge, owned by Leo Glodzik, of LAG Towing in Duryea, will collapse and create a dam on the river.
Urban said he is certain no other funding is available to demolish the bridge. “There are things that could be done immediately, so the answer that was received tonight to me is unsatisfactory,” he said.
Reilly said county staffers want to remove the bridge and are seeking some of the county recovery funds for that purpose. However, he said the county proposal must undergo the same review process as the municipal proposals.
Lawton said the federal government also awarded recovery funds to Dauphin County and the state, and Luzerne County is at the same stage or ahead of them in planning how the money will be spent.