Financially speaking, it's all bad news


By Jim Poole

Schoharie County will be feeling--or reeling from--the financial impact of Irene and Lee for years.
As they begin the long process of putting together the recovery numbers, county financial officials believe the bill will be well into the double-digit millions.
And that's only for county property, not private homes and businesses.
"This is an early estimate, and it's very early, is that for the county--buildings, contents, roads and bridges--would equal about one year of a county budget, or about $73 million, county co-Budget Officer Alicia Terry said last week.
Fellow co-Budget Officer Paul Brady and county Treasurer Bill Cherry agreed that Ms. Terry's estimate may not be far off.
Further agreeing with Ms. Terry, Mr. Cherry noted that it's way too early for any firm estimate.
"We don't know what it will cost to clean up, and we don't even know what we can repair," Mr. Cherry said.
He was referring to the Public Safety Building--the jail and Sheriff's Office--because officials are unsure whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will allow the county to re-establish the building there, in a flood plain.
"We may be forced to build an entire new jail," Mr. Cherry said. "We just don't know."
The county has some money to pay immediate bills. It will receive $6 million in insurance, Mr. Cherry said.
Mr. Brady pointed to several million in the county's fund balance but added that using it all would be unwise.
Both he and Ms. Terry suggested the county, which hasn't taken a loan out in years, will probably have to borrow.
They're both aware that Mr. Cherry is an ardent opponent of borrowing but also said his position has given the county an excellent credit rating.
"My hat's off to Bill for keeping us a debt-free county," Ms. Terry said.
Mr. Cherry's already taken steps to investigate borrowing $10 million in a short-term loan.
"I don't like borrowing, but these are extraordinary times," he said.
That $10 million might only be the beginning, Mr. Cherry said.
He's also hoping that towns and villages could borrow under auspices of the county and thereby take advantage of the county's favorable loan rate--under one percent.
Mr. Cherry is unsure, however, whether towns and villages can legally borrow through the county.
The county, towns and villages would need money up front for cleanup, repairs and rebuilding but would be reimbursed by FEMA for 75 percent of the cost.
"You have to spend the money up front and then get reimbursed," Mr. Cherry said.
The state would reimburse an additional 12.5 percent, and local municipalities would pay the remaining 12.5 percent.
The local portion of the county's estimated $73 million bill comes to $9.1 million, an amount local taxpayers could hardly cover under these conditions, Ms. Terry said.
That's why she, Mr. Brady, Mr. Cherry, Senator Jim Seward and others are pressing the state to pick up the local 12.5-percent share.
"There's precedent for this," Ms. Terry said. "The state's done it before."
Mr. Cherry, on the board of the New York Association of Counties, said that organization is pressing the state to pay local shares for all counties in the same situation.
It's unclear whether the state can do so, Mr. Brady pointed out.
"If the state commits to the 12.5 percent, it gives us tremendous release," he said. "But is the state in any better situation than the counties?"