After communities along Lake Ontario were pummeled by waves and flood waters in 2017, New York State promised financial relief. Millions of dollars were offered to towns and villages to help clean up.
But so far, only a fraction of that money has been reimbursed to those communities.
Even though the flooding was at its worst last spring, it wasn’t until just last month that Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Town of Newfane would be reimbursed $65,693 from the state for the flood response. But that doesn’t mean New York State signed a check that day.
“It’s like starting all over again,” David Hedley said about the damage caused by the floods. “It destroyed the infrastructure.”
Hedley owns the Hedley Boat Company right on the lakeshore. He doesn’t expect to be open this summer, more than a year after the flooding. He’s still fixing the damage.
“It has to be totally gutted out,” Hedley said. “All the mold has to be removed. You’re talking a lot of money to do stuff like that.”
As Hedley tries to figure out the quickest way to get his business back up and running, Newfane Town Supervisor Tim Horanburg is trying to figure out the quickest way to get the money the state already said the town can have.
“(The highway department) could use it to fix potholes in the roads that are so bad this year and repave roads,” Horanburg said.
The town has also been promised an additional $500,000 to help build a break wall on the lake.
“We don’t have the money yet,” Horanburg said. “We know it’s coming sooner or later. It’s a slow government process, which I’m used to.”
New York State Homes and Community Renewal is the state agency in charge of distributing the funds to towns like Newfane. According to data provided by the department, of the roughly $8,000,000 they are handing out to communities on the lake, only $838,000 have been disbursed. That represents only about 10 percent of the funds.
HCR staff points out the money must be spent first. In some cases, the communities haven’t spent the money yet, like in the case of the Newfane break wall.
“I’ve been here for 30-some years,” Horanburg said. “When I first came in, you think you’re going to do something and do it quick. And you find out the government process doesn’t work like that.”
“Too much red tape,” Hedley complained about getting relief funds.
The towns were required to submit an application for the money by November, about six months following the flooding. The Housing Trust Fund Corporation then had to approve it. After an award letter was sent to the town, officials had to complete a grant agreement. An environmental review also had to be completed, and approved.
“I think the government could be refined to speed this up,” Horanburg said.
After all of that, the state sent the Town of Newfane a “release of funds” letter on March 22nd. Only then could the Horanburg begin sending the town’s invoices in. Currently, the state is waiting for those invoices, according to Homes and Community Renewal spokesperson Freeman Klopott. He says the town should receive the funds seven-to-10 days after those are received by state officials.
“There is a process obviously, and that process is important in protecting taxpayers,” Klopott said.
While town officials are complaining about the process, Klopott says there is a good reason it is set up the way it is.
“It’s very important that when we’re delivering money that’s designed to help communities recover from something like flooding or to build back stronger and smarter, that we’re certain that that funding is going to go and help meet those goals,” he said.
Residents in Newfane also have concerns about the potential for flooding this year. While the situation isn’t nearly as dire as it was in 2017, water levels are still several inches above normal. Sand bags are ready to be distributed from the town’s highway department just in case.
“It’s going up right now and we see it going up,” Horanburg said. “Every time we get a north wind, it pounds us.”
“Currently, the forecasts are not showing the levels being anywhere near where they were last year,” said Keith Koralewski, who is an Alternate U.S. Representative on the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board.
Koralewski makes a living keeping a close eye on water levels. He says while he doesn’t expect the waters to impact people as much this year, the weather is still a wild card.
“Based on what the levels are looking at right now, they’re above the long term average,” he said. “It’s hard to predict without knowing what precipitation is going to be like in two weeks and in two months.”
“We don’t know what the weather is going to do,” Hedley said. “We don’t know how much rain we’re going to get. It’s just a wait and see thing. It’s a gamble.”