State changes plans on helping counties with storm cleanup

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By Jimmie Earls

Hang in there, Washington County because help cleaning up after the ice storm is on the way. That was the word from the Washington County Fiscal Court at its meeting on Monday morning.

“We heard on Thursday that the state was possibly going to take care of the whole state,” said Washington County Judge-Executive John Settles. “The state is selecting independent contractors to clean all city, county, state roads and subdivisions as long as they are not gated subdivisions. They ask property owners to move the debris to the roadside or curb where they can get to it. The state and FEMA will cover 87 percent of the gathering costs with the remaining 13 percent paid for by the county out of future road aid money. Any work done by counties prior to the state contracts will be 75 percent reimbursable.”

The state’s proposal changed from a previous announcement last Friday where the state agreed to pay 100 percent of both gathering and disposal costs. The state announced a clarification on Monday afternoon, stating that they would handle all the contracting, keep up with all the loads and would gather the debris and bring it to EPA-approved sites leased by the county. Once the debris is dropped off, the county must dispose of it at their own cost, but may be reimbursed by the state for 75 percent of the cost.

“I made the comment on Friday, this sounds too good to be true,” said Settles. “The game has changed. The new proposal isn’t as attractive now.”

An emergency fiscal court meeting was called for 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the issue. The county had until 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning to opt-out of the state’s proposal. A decision was not available at press time.

“If we decide to do the gathering in-house with our county road crew, the only thing we can get reimbursed for is overtime,” added Settles. “The state will say that we have our crew and they’d be working normal hours, even though the gathering would take away from their normal duties.”

Settles said the money the county will lose from the road aid fund will be a painful loss.

“That’s where our blacktop money comes from,” Settles reiterated. “We’re so short now with the high cost of asphalt, that’s going to cut into future road repairs. I’m frustrated, I really am. There’s nothing good about this whole scenario.”

The state will have a representative with each cleanup crew to make sure the work is done to their satisfaction. In some cases, the state may ask the county to handle some roads. Several collection sites will be located in Washington County, including the landfill and possibly two more sites yet to be determined. Settles asked the court to think about the other sites to be used and to ask property owners if they would be willing to participate. The sites must be accessible from the road.

“The contractors will have 60 days from when the contract starts to be completely done with that county,” added Settles. “The state is talking about multiple contracts across the state. They say they are going to divide the county up into quadrants and may have four contractors in each county. A lot of the companies are coming from the Gulf Coast, the bigger ones are hurricane debris removal companies, so they need a pretty big site.”

Washington County is one of 101 counties in the commonwealth to be declared federal disaster areas. Rather than wait until the state contracts are awarded, Settles asked the court for permission to solicit requests for proposals from companies to start the cleanup process in the county, even though it means the county will have to pay 25 percent of the cost.

“We are still under the declaration of emergency,” Settles said. “We do not have to go through the regular bid process. I can get requests for proposals from storm debris removal companies. If it’s going to be two to four weeks before the state starts, I don’t think our citizens are going to allow us to wait that long. There are going to be too many complaints. It would be much better from a budget standpoint to let the state do it, because it’s 100 percent paid for, but I’m requesting that the court allow me to get the RFPs. That way I’ll have them in-hand and if the state delays, then we’ll go ahead and get started ourselves.”

A motion to approve the RFPs was made by Magistrate Benjamin Settles and seconded by Magistrate Greg Simms. The vote was unanimous in favor with Magistrate Morris Sweazy absent due to illness.

Solid Waste Coordinator George Ann Palmer said any farmer that doesn’t want to bring in their storm debris may burn it on their property as long as they are not in a city.

The court discussed the dangers of hanging limbs that are still suspended over county roads. Magistrate Hal Goode told Judge Settles they will “get a good feel on the bad spots when the school buses run.”

“I had a school bus driver call me Saturday wondering what we were going to do about the limbs that were hanging down,” said Magistrate Settles.

Judge Settles said he talked to Washington County School Board Superintendent Robert Stafford and asked if Stafford would have the school bus drivers list places on county roads.

Kevin Devine, director of the Washington County Office of Emergency Management, was scheduled to meet with the Army Corp of Engineers this past Monday to assess 13 locations throughout the county.

“That way they will have a database of what generators the county will need for facilities,” said Devine. “As far as the storm goes, we did open the Emergency Operations Center a couple days in and we had a debris team that worked out well, but the storm opened a lot of eyes to what is needed. I’m working with FEMA right now to try to get reimbursed. We have to get our paperwork in.”

Devine also said there will be a post-storm debriefing to determine what the county can do better the next time something like this happens.

With phone lines and electricity out in much of the county, Goode commented on the efforts it took to get word out about the shelter at the high school.

“It almost got back to a grass roots way of communicating,” said Goode. “The radio stations were out, we even thought of ways to put information online, but we didn’t have electricity for computers. We even went as far as posting notices on churches where people could see them and waving people down to give them information. I thought it was really interesting to see how creative we got trying to get the word out.”

Judge Settles also announced that Salt River Electric will have a debriefing on the ice storm by the end of the month. Salt River is asking citizens or elected officials who have any questions or comments to please write it down. The company would like to have a record of it and is looking for input on how they could be more efficient or do things differently in the future.

The county road crew also had their share of cleanup after the storm.

“We had some roads that were blocked solid,” said road crew director Albert Wimsatt. “We got three trucks with windshields broken out of them right now. We were pushing a limb off with the backhoe and a limb came around and whacked it, and one of the dump trucks got it with a limb.”

“This was the worst I saw since 1994,” said Magistrate Billy Riney. “When Eastern Kentucky Power was trying to get into Rt. 429, they were trying to cut a tree in front of them and while they were cutting that, one behind them fell over. The whole route was blocked.”

“I have to commend our electrical inspector Arthur Elliott,” Settles added. “He’s spent a lot of time in Mercer County and Washington County, and the state called him to help in Boyle County. He’s been really responsive during all of this and I appreciate that.”

Settles was impressed by the spirit of community that came out in the wake of storm.

“We’ve learned a lot of things, Settles added. “We’re going to have an after-incident debriefing some time soon and get this behind us. The spirit of volunteerism and helping people in this community was incredible.”