November 2011
October 25, 2011

NYSUT seeking ways to relieve financial burdens

Author: Darryl McGrath and Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, right, tours a flood-ravaged neighborhood in Owego with Dan Whippo, president of the Owego Apalachin Teachers Association, left, and NYSUT Board member Ken Smith, president of the Broome-Delaware-Tioga BOCES TA. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Floods took the vintage woodwork, custom cabinets, cherry wood floors and countless family treasures from Reathea Woodburn's home in Owego this summer.

Like many across the state, the recent retiree of the Owego Apalachin Teachers Association, is left with staggering costs to rebuild after the damage caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

Just weeks before 10 feet of water inundated their home, Woodburn and her husband had reduced their flood insurance coverage from $150,000 to $50,000 because the premium had risen to $14,000 a year.

Their reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Mangement Agency (FEMA), for a house that has been gutted to the studs?

"Less than my cell phone bill," Woodburn said.

As NYSUT members and the school districts they serve tally the damage from the August floods, the realization is sinking in: The financial recovery may take much longer than the physical recovery.

"I know that Reathea Woodburn's fear that she may lose her home and her village is replicated across our state," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, after he visited Owego and other Southern Tier communities. NYSUT's Disaster Relief Fund has received more than $70,000 in donations from members, but more is needed. "Many, many applications for assistance arrive daily and the number continues to grow."

"We are finding that the true cost of the disaster is unfolding in unexpected ways that will be felt by NYSUT members, school districts and their communities for years to come," Iannuzzi said.

Indeed, the stakes are huge for areas in the 30 counties damaged by flooding. Some residents fear homes and business will never be rebuilt and their communities will simply disappear. And even if these communities survive, the loss of so many homes and residents will leave an indelible mark.

"Our local expects to lose more than 20 percent of its members," said Candace Stroud, president of the Binghamton Teachers Association.

As of Oct. 20, more than 63,820 households have applied for assistance through FEMA. The most a homeowner can receive is $30,200, often far short for a homeowner without adequate insurance and a severely damaged house.

The state estimates its costs for flood damage will surpass $100 million. FEMA reimburses governments only up to 75 percent of disaster-related costs while the Federal Highway Administration will cover about 80 percent of the cost to repair most roads. That means the state can be left with as much as 25 percent of many repair projects.

School costs run into millions

Schools also face huge costs. The Binghamton City School District, for example, is looking at a range between $22.6 million and $37.3 million to renovate or replace the flood-damaged MacArthur Elementary School. The district's portion of the repair costs, after payouts by insurance and FEMA, could be well into six figures.

"We're concerned about how this will affect the tax levy, and you know, with the tax cap, now it's a whole different dilemma," said Steven Deinhardt, Binghamton's assistant superintendent for administration.

In Middleburgh, Schoharie County, more than $220,000 worth of equipment for the middle/high school technology department was badly damaged, yet may not be covered by flood insurance. "We are going into our third month of school with basically bare classrooms, and with no word on when or how they will be restored," said Scott Gray.

Gray and Dave Dickerson, both of the Middleburgh TA, are rebuilding what they can. "Now we're struggling to replace the basic tools we need for our labs."

Costs are mounting in unpredictable ways. About 100 Johnson City Central School District students now live outside the boundaries but still attend district schools because they have not permanently moved. The district must provide transportation, even if it means sending a bus a long distance to pick up and drop off just a few children. "We have buses going in directions they never went before," said John Mauro, the district's school business executive. "We don't even know the cost yet."

Even if insurance and FEMA payments can help schools get up and running again, significant history has been lost — beloved library books that are long out of print, one-of-a-kind mementos, reports and awards that make up school traditions and in turn help solidify its place in the community. Money cannot replace these losses.

A mound of equipment, books and supplies covered an area the size of a basketball court in the Owego Elementary School's parking lot. Dan Whippo, president of the Owego Apalachin TA, said some of the materials would be salvaged, but many would not. While the flood waters didn't reach objects stored on upper shelves, Whippo said, mold contamination is likely.

Will state ease the burden?

NYSUT's legislative staff is working to build support for a bill that would ease the burden on municipalities and school districts.

The Flood Assessment Relief Act of 2011, sponsored by Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, would allow municipalities to reassess properties in disaster areas, and hold school districts harmless from any financial loss from the reassessment.

"The tax base is critical to the economic health of our communities," said Andy Pallotta, who leads NYSUT's legislative staff. "All property owners, especially businesses, need some kind of reprieve when they suffer major damage, while we still need to provide for the future of our students. We hope this bill can provide for both."

Businesses are critical links in a local economy, yet in a natural disaster, "they are the ones that probably have the least amount of assistance available to them," said Frank Evangelisti, the Broome County commissioner of planning and economic development. Synergy Solutions, a telephone service company that operated help lines and call centers, quickly left Johnson City after they were flooded and relocated to Colorado, Evangelisti said. The company employed at least 100 people.

Another Lupardo-sponsored bill NYSUT supports would allow school districts in disaster areas to allow property owners to pay taxes in installments.

"When homeowners and businesses have to worry about rebuilding, they should be allowed some grace period on taxes," Pallotta said.