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February 8, 2014

DEC official: FEMA's plan puts jail at flood risk

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The official who oversees the state’s floodplain management program has concluded that a new Schoharie County public safety facility should be built on higher ground — disagreeing with Federal Emergency Management Agency’s insistence that it be constructed at lower cost in a flood-prone area.

“While building a new facility outside of the flood hazard area will be more expensive in the short run, it will save significant flood-damage expenses in the long run and may save lives,” William S. Nechamen of the state Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Water said in a recent letter to County Treasurer William Cherry.

The county has been at loggerheads for two years with FEMA over the siting for a new public safety building that would house the jail, the emergency communications center and the sheriff’s office.

FEMA must pay for 75 percent of the project, while the state government would pick up the tab for the remaining 25 percent. Rebuilding it at the present location, with the addition of floodgates that would run at least $6 million, would cost at least $14 million. Putting the complex at a new location on higher ground has been estimated at $18.7 million.

Cherry, who is also the county’s disaster recovery coordinator, said he is now using the letter from Nechamen in a last-ditch appeal to FEMA bureaucrats in Washington to overturn the denial of the proposed $18-million project by New York-based FEMA officials.

In a letter to James Casey, a senior official with the Office of Emergency Management, Cherry cited the letter from Nechamen in asking that FEMA reconsider its stance.

He also painted a vivid picture of unleashed water that devastated the village of Schoharie on Aug. 28, 2011.

“The floodwaters were so intense and powerful that solid steel doors were twisted like children’s toys,” Cherry wrote. “For FEMA to continue to take the position that this facility must be repaired and rebuilt at its present location seems arbitrary, shortsighted and defies common sense.”

He said FEMA is legally obligated to comply with state and local building codes in choosing whether to rebuild at the current location or moving the public safety facility to higher ground. He cited the Nechamen letter in pointing out that the state will not pay for a project in an area known as posing a significant flood hazard.

In the absence of a county jail, Schoharie County has been farming out its inmates to Albany County at a significant cost to taxpayers.

If FEMA continues to stand firm against contributing to the more-expensive project recommended by Cherry, the county Board of Supervisors would have the option of bringing litigation against the federal agency.

Among those backing Schoharie County in the dispute with FEMA are Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook.