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Many haulers in storm cleanup await payment

As the cleanup from the October storm enters its final stages, many of the haulers hired to pick up debris are still waiting to be paid.

Some companies can cope with the delayed payments, but others, including some of the smaller firms hired as subcontractors, say they are running into problems and are either borrowing money or just squeaking by.

"It's been five weeks" without getting paid, said Lynn Barnhart, an officer with BDR Inc., a small, family-owned company in Arkansas helping with the Erie County cleanup. "We have obligations. We have guys in hotels [in Erie County] on the verge of being kicked out."

Erie County last week sent out $5 million in initial payments to contractors who have been working in Erie County since Oct. 21, but as of Friday, several contractors and subcontractors said they had not yet received any money.

The delay resulted, officials said, because of sloppy record keeping by some haulers and monitors, making it difficult for Erie County to verify who was picking up the debris and how much was being picked up. The verification is necessary, in part, so the county can get its expenses reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said.

"The legibility of debris tickets has been an issue," said Joseph Gervase, Erie County purchasing director. "It's been a very big problem."

County officials have responded by resetting computers to address problems with some of the tens of thousands of debris tickets, remeasuring trucks, and verifying information with contractors, among other steps.

Erie County contracted with 11 local companies to clear debris. Some did the work themselves, while others hired subcontractors. Several local contractors said the delay was anticipated, since FEMA reimbursement is involved, and isn't a problem.

Erik Boldt of Boldt's Evergreen Farm of Orchard Park subcontracted with a large company from Florida that can afford to wait. "They can go six to 10 months without getting paid," Boldt said.

Barnhart said BDR Inc. of Arkansas was hired to work for one of the subcontractors working for a local company that contracted with Erie County for the hauling work.

Although Erie County sent out an initial round of payments on Dec. 5, Barnhart's company, as a subcontractor working for a subcontractor, had not received any money as of Friday.

"We've never had this problem before," Barnhart said. Her company has been in the debris-hauling business for four years, she said.

The city of Buffalo, meanwhile, also hasn't paid its haulers yet, but is about to issue $2.6 million to 11 contractors who worked in the initial days after the Oct. 12-13 storm, said Joseph N. Giambra, the city's public works commissioner.

"They're all looking for their money," Giambra said. "We have to be careful and do it the way FEMA wants. We'll get them paid as quickly as we can."

FEMA is winding down its Western New York operation. The agency closed its Town of Tonawanda office Saturday, but will continue taking applications for assistance through Dec. 23. Call (800) 621-3362 or go online at www.fema.gov.

Those still needing help with debris cleanup or having other problems associated with the Oct. 12-13 storm can call Central Referral Services at 851-5555.

e-mail: sschulman@buffnews.com; plakamp@buffnews.com

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