Voters OK funds for storm cleanup

Beacon Falls residents Carl Gandarillas, left, and Jack Betkoski cast their votes during a town meeting on Monday at Laurel Ledge Elementary School. The vote was on whether to use up to $300,000 from the unassigned fund balance to pay to clean up the debris from the tornado on May 15. The resolution passed, 38 to 14. –LUKE MARSHALL

BEACON FALLS — The town is moving forward with cleaning up debris from a tornado in May without the possibility of financial help from the federal government down the road.

An EF1 tornado — one of four tornados that touched down in the state — with winds of up to 110 mph tore through town on May 15, taking down trees and utility poles and leaving significant damage in its wake. The storm left about 15,000 cubic yards of debris on town land, according to First Selectman Christopher Bielik.

Voters approved, by a vote of 38 to 14, using up to $300,000 from the town’s unassigned fund balance to pay to clean up the debris during a town meeting Monday at Laurel Ledge Elementary School.

The town initially sought bids to do the work that followed guidelines set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to receive federal reimbursement, if the state is granted a presidential disaster declaration.

Gov. Dannel Malloy is seeking federal assistance. Municipalities and the state would be reimbursed 75 percent of eligible costs if the declaration is granted, the Associated Press reported.

The requirements to meet FEMA guidelines drove the cost of the work in town up. The town received seven bids to its initial request for proposals. The bids that met FEMA guidelines ranged from $500,000 to $750,000, Bielik said.

The lowest bid, which was $214,000, didn’t include an independent monitor and the cost to transport the material to a site approved by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, according to officials.

The Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance rejected all of the bids.

Bielik said officials felt there was too much risk, at this point, in moving forward with a FEMA-approved bidder.

It’s not certain that the state will receive a presidential disaster declaration. If the town moved forward with one of the bidders that met FEMA standards, and the state wasn’t approved for FEMA funds, the town would be responsible for the full cost, Bielik said.

If it moved forward with one of the bids that met FEMA standards, Bielik said the town would have to bond the money for the cleanup, and it could take up to two years to be reimbursed. He added the town’s share of the cleanup cost and the fees for the bond would likely be close to $300,000.

“We have to understand that, if we bid this out according to the FEMA standards, we are on the hook for paying the entire bill up front and then, hopefully down the line, get reimbursement from FEMA after the fact,” Bielik said.

A handful of people spoke during a public hearing on the cleanup proposal. Some questioned why the town’s public works employees couldn’t do the work themselves.

If the employees worked on the cleanup, officials said, it wouldn’t leave them time to do their regular duties, such as filling pot holes, mowing, and keeping up athletic fields.

The town has already issued another request for proposals for the cleanup, Bielik said. This time, the bids don’t have to meet FEMA standards and can’t exceed $300,000.

The proposals are due by July 13 and scheduled to be opened on July 16.

The work the town has already done with its own public works department and any future costs the town may incur that meet FEMA guidelines are eligible for reimbursement, if the federal funds are made available.