While the debris last April’s storms created is, by now, mostly a memory in Hanceville, city officials say that paying for the cleanup effort is still...well, a mess.
Faced with the choice of borrowing money now so that FEMA reimbursements will come later — or, of doing nothing while watching federal reimbursement funds come to a complete stop — the Hanceville City Council felt it didn’t have much choice.
“We have to do it,” said council member Charles Wilson last week, after the council unanimously voted to authorize mayor Kenneth Nail to borrow more than half a million dollars. “If we don’t [borrow], we’re not going to get reimbursed. I’ve talked to people from other places where they went in and did the cleanup, and they’re having to do the same thing.”
Wilson’s comments referred to a letter Hanceville received last week from the Alabama EMA — which distributes to local governments the federal reimbursement funds FEMA pledged last year — informing the city that it wouldn’t receive any more incremental reimbursements until the city had paid its contractors the amounts they’re owed, in full.
“It’s a reimbursement grant,” local EMA director Phyllis Little observed Friday. “That’s really how it’s designed to work: you pay for something in full, then you turn it in, and then FEMA will turn around and reimburse you.”
So the council authorized mayor Nail to approach lenders for a pretty big loan — a $550,000 loan — to pay off balances due to North Carolina-based Byrd Brothers Emergency Services, as well as Cullman-based Minuteman Construction. Byrd swept the city clean of debris on public rights of way; Minuteman offered a similar service for approved swaths of private property.
Half a million dollars is a lot of money for a city Hanceville’s size. The city’s new fire station only cost a little more than that. But, according to Nail, the council’s unanimous vote to borrow the money speaks volumes about its commitment to save the city more — a lot more — in the long term.
How will borrowing now save the city so much money later?
Hanceville’s decision to negotiate directly with debris removal contractors — instead of allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to serve as a general contractor — meant the city could bid out the cleanup work and approve the lowest qualifying bids. Had city leaders opted to go with the Corps, said Nail, the Corps would have told them what their subcontractors’ going rate was. And, he said, it would have been a lot higher.
“I’m just glad that we’re sitting up here talking about borrowing $550,000, because, if we had gone with the Corps of Engineers, we’d be trying to figure out how to borrow $7 million,” said Nail.
“I need to make it really clear,” he later added. “We took on a lot of extra work, on the administrative side, to sort our cleanup out without asking the Corps to come in. FEMA pledged to all of us — Cullman County, the City of Cullman, and Hanceville — the same rate of reimbursement for the entire debris removal program, and for Operation Clean Sweep [which swept debris from private land]. But all of us are still gonna have to match a part of it — and how much we have to pay on the matching side is a direct result of how much our contractors, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, charged to haul all this debris away.”
How much cheaper? Figures released just before the cleanup placed Byrd Brothers’ standard unit price at $8.50 to haul off one cubic yard of debris. The Cullman County Commission, as well as the City of Cullman — each of whom did enlist the Corps as general contractor for their cleanup work — said the Corps’ price for the same service was upwards of $40 per cubic yard.
It’s still too early to tell what the final cleanup bill for Cullman County will be. Both city and county asked the federal government last August to do away with matching-funds requirements, and instead shoulder the entire financial burden for both Clean Sweep and the right of way cleanup. The Cullman Times endorsed those requests in a followup editorial.
But Nail said Hanceville may yet be vindicated for acting as its own general cleanup contractor, once local governments statewide get their final bills.
“Our contractors’ prices were a heck of a lot cheaper than the Corps’,” he said. “Did it mean more paperwork; more work, on our end, to hire independent monitors to watch the debris being taken to the burn piles; to wrangle with FEMA and the state EMA? You bet it did.
“We knew this day was coming; when we’d have to borrow money to clear out what we owed. And FEMA’s not done reimbursing us — we’re gonna try to get a six-month loan, because we’re expecting FEMA to turn around pretty quickly and reimburse us once we’ve paid our contractors. And I’ve not heard one unkind word about the path we took to put Hanceville back together, or about the job our employees did to help get the city back on its feet.”
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* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.