Winter relief funds

MARQUETTE – Marquette County and the other Michigan counties affected by last winter’s deep freeze will be eligible to receive up to $6 million in aid – a step county officials said will help but not solve the enormous costs incurred due to infrastructure damaged by extreme cold.

Marquette County is one of nine Michigan counties in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula that will potentially receive the funds.

Gov. Rick Snyder announced in a press release Tuesday that the counties of Marquette, Chippewa, Delta, Gogebic, Luce and Mackinac in the U.P. and Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties downstate will be eligible to receive Community Development Block Grants.

The funds would be used to recover costs associated with repairing damaged roads and replacing or thawing damaged water and sewer mains due to extreme cold temperatures last winter. The CDBG program is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The state is stepping up and assisting our northern Michigan communities to repair their damaged infrastructure,” Snyder said in the release. “Last winter’s extremely cold temperatures and deep frost levels caused millions of dollars in damages. It makes good sense to begin the repairs as quickly as possible to restore water and sewer mains and roads in the affected areas.”

Snyder declared a state of emergency for Marquette County on April 17. The declaration allowed the county’s town and cities to use state resources to assist efforts to respond to infrastructure damage. Snyder amended the declaration May 7 to include the other eight northern Michigan counties.

Damage from one of the most severe winters in at least 20 years cost the nine affected counties a total of $19.3 million. The threshold for a presidential declaration and help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is $13.7 million, and the state’s emergency management department submitted the counties’ reported damages to FEMA officials on Friday. FEMA will review the damages before deciding whether to recommend a presidential declaration and financial reimbursement. Marquette County alone has incurred $6.5 million in damages.

While county officials said the funding is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t allay concerns that state emergency management officials don’t have a true understanding of the extent and severity of problems faced by communities last winter.

“It’s a good but modest start,” Marquette County Board member Steve Pence said. “I think at the county level we haven’t felt real good about the state people and their ability to understand and convey to FEMA why cities have a need to engage in let-run (orders) to prevent even further damage on public property. I think there’s a mistaken notion that these were either actual or potential private losses and most of what the cities and townships were trying to prevent was damages to the infrastructure underneath roadways.”

Pence and county board Chairman Gerald Corkin said they’re hoping that FEMA and state officials will visit the affected communities to better grasp the necessity of local actions in preventing even more widespread damage.

“We’ve been reaching out to our federal legislators to ask them to come in to the counties here in the U.P. and meet with the city managers and the public works directors so they understand the damage assessment as to why, for example, communities had to use let-runs to prevent further severe damage and loss of water for residents,” Corkin said.

Pence agreed, saying: “We need a proper assessment of those damages so the cities and townships and villages can be properly reimbursed. Otherwise, I just don’t know where budgets will be next year. These are lean and hard times for municipalities and we need support of the state.”

Teresa Schwalbach, coordinator of the Marquette County Emergency Management Program, said the support is a good start, but she’s awaiting more details as to how the funds will be disbursed.

“We haven’t gotten any more details as to how it’s going to work … as far as the work that’s already done, if that’s going to be included in that (aid),” she said. “So we’ve got a lot more details that we need to get from (the state) before any of it’s probably administered. But it’s good.”

The money was allocated early Tuesday after the Michigan Strategic Fund board approved a Michigan Economic Development Corp. proposal to disburse CDBG funds to impacted communities by having them submit online applications in a round of the competitive request for proposal process.

The press release said some past projects funded by MEDC and MSF could be jeopardized if some of the infrastructure in affected counties isn’t repaired quickly.

To be eligible for CDBG funds, the communities must be non-entitled under the federal CDBG rules; document that they are unable to fund the repairs by another source; have had hard infrastructure repairs – water and sewer work or road work related to water and sewer work – that occurred after Nov. 1; and match a minimum of 15 percent of the costs while continuing to seek a presidential declaration and reimbursement from the FEMA.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.