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No solution yet for FEMA debt

SLIB board declines funding request to correct Cole tank oversight, city eyes legislative fix

 

December 20, 2018



Public’s right to inspect public records without charge upheld

Alexis Barker

Newcastle News Letter Journal

Via Wyoming News Exchange

The State Lands and Investments Board was unable to throw Sundance the lifeline it was hoping for last week. The board turned down a request that would have been used to repay FEMA for the emergency funding that was used to re-site the Cole Water Storage Tank when it was discovered to be sliding off the hill.

Despite the tank’s new location on private land, the Sundance City Council heard in August that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process should have been followed at the time of the project. As the NEPA process does not normally apply to private property, the city did not obtain the necessary document – an oversight that was not corrected despite multiple layers of oversight at the state and federal level.

FEMA requested that the City of Sundance repay the approximately $300,000 contribution it made to the project. Two appeals made in conjunction with Wyoming Homeland Security were turned down in Washington, D.C. and City Attorney Mark Hughes suggested petitioning the SLIB board for assistance on the basis that it wouldn’t be much more than a line item transfer into the general fund.

Mayor Paul Brooks and Clerk Treasurer Kathy Lenz traveled to Cheyenne last week to make the request.

“[The board] didn’t hold out a lot of hope because we didn’t fall under an emergency, which is defined as a pending disaster, and then the other criterion that seemed to get us around every corner was that we’re asking for a disaster that’s already happened, not for construction or replacement of something new. When we walked in, we knew we were in trouble,” says Brooks.

“They debated it and they stretched as much as they could, but they have definitions they have to live by and they could not help us. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help us – I think every one of them clearly sent a signal that they wanted to help us – it’s just that by definition they could not.”

The city does not intend to give up without a fight, however.

“The one thing Governor Mead said on the way out was that, potentially, there was a legislative solution,” says the mayor, who immediately reached out to Crook County’s legislators.

“We talked to Senator Driskill, who held out some hope of being able to engineer something through Wyoming Water Development,” he says.

“We have been in contact with Representative Lindholm and I do have calls in to both Treasurer-elect Curt Meier, who sits on ag, and Hans Hunt, who is the ag chairman on the House side.”

Brooks remains optimistic, he says, that there will be a solution based on those appeals.

“We’re not out of options by any means, but the low hanging fruit was just that. At least we’re pointed in the direction – water development has not told us no,” he says.

If the appeal to water development fails, Brooks adds, all is still not lost – Joint Appropriations may be able and willing to assist during the supplemental budget process.

As for the city coming up with the cash by itself, Brooks is strongly opposed to the idea of increasing user rates to raise enough to pay back the money.

“We don’t operate on such a great margin that we can afford to absorb $330,000 – we can’t afford to absorb a tenth of that. We just raised rates to try to keep up with our water system, which was in some disarray because the water standards have got tougher and tougher,” he says.

“It did play well in all of the discussions that we had just come off a rate increase that seemed large, but not large enough to repay this money.”

The irony, says the mayor, is that Sundance would probably have been better off if FEMA had never stepped in to help at all.

“For FEMA to step in and say, we’re here, we’re going to save the day and then jerk the rug out from under us, we would have been way better off to just engineer a solution with us and Wyoming Water Development,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the town. Had FEMA never stepped in, our rates would have remained the same and we’d be in good shape.”

Brooks refers to the old joke that the scariest sentence you will ever hear is, “Hello, I’m from the government and I’m here to help”.

“I’ll tell you what, that thing has caused me a lot of sleepless nights,” he says. “This is one of those projects with a lot of moving pieces and you miss one piece and you die? There’s a point in history when people are mad at the government and they deserve to be and, quite frankly, I believe this is that time.”

But while Brooks is frustrated that Sundance is being punished for an oversight that wasn’t caught despite so many layers of oversight, he is keen to stress that the responsibility falls to the mayor.

“I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. Ultimately, at the end of the day, everybody in the stream works for me – I’m the responsible party,” he says firmly.

“There were level after level of folks that saw what we were doing, knew what we were doing…but at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the mayor, I’m the guy who ultimately is at fault. We’re being made an example of and ultimately that’s my fault, but there were multiple layers of engineers and lawyers and environmental people who saw this and nobody raised a flag and said, you guys need a NEPA, so the whole process gives me some heartburn.”

 
 

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