Two months...County looks to borrow $10M


By Patsy Nicosia

Do the math:
If Schoharie County's Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee damages total-educated guess--$50 million to things like roads and buildings and FEMA and insurance picks up 80 percent of that, that leaves $10 million to come from...somewhere else.
"And we may need more, to be honest," County Clerk Bill Cherry, the man doing the math, said Friday.
"We just don't know. There are so many questions about what the future will look like here...It's impossible for us to paint a clear picture."
Mr. Cherry said he's already begun the paperwork that would let the county borrow an unprecedented $10 million.
Typically, he said, the county has about that much in the bank to pay its bills, but now that's dwindled to about $3 to $4 million-all of it going out and with nothing coming in until FEMA reimbursement begins.
Additionally, Mr. Cherry said, the county has already paid out $3 to $4 million for things like emergency road repairs and drying out county buildings.
"That's above and beyond, with no additional revenue to offset it," he said. "It puts us awfully close to the minimum balance. Sometimes just one DSS abstract can be $400,000 to $500,000..."
Complicating the picture of what comes next are questions like whether the county ends up repairing the jail where it sits-in the floodplain-or rebuilding it somewhere higher.
"If we rebuild it in a flood plain, does FEMA help? What if they say if we build it out of the flood plain our cost will be zero? That would make the decision pretty easy. But that's an answer we don't have."
Even more important than that question, Mr. Cherry said, is what has happened to the tax base and what will happen to taxes.
"Irene cut a pretty big swath," he said, estimating one-third of the county's tax base has been lost.
Using his own Schoharie home as an example, Mr. Cherry said it was probably assessed at $260,000. Now it's an empty shell.
Plus, he suspects the flood will depress property values throughout the county for a minimum of five years-and maybe as long as 10.
"And the costs of government will rise as we start paying back that $10 million," he said. "It's all unprecedented.
"We were all in a recession with high unemployment numbers...We can't just raise taxes or that will chase everyone who's left out."
Mr. Cherry said he doesn't have any quick answers-"We need to put the smartest people we have in a room and start figuring that out," he said.
"Other communities have gone through this before, even if it feels like we're the first ones. We need to ask them for ideas and help."
His own idea is to offer residents some sort of assessment incentive that would officially reduce their property assessment if they rebuild.
"The assessment's already reduced," he pointed out, adding:
"When all's said and done, it's all on us to make this a liveable place again. Room by room, house by house, we have to crawl back. We don't have a choice."