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Town officials hoping FEMA will help cover costs from snowstorm

Even before it’s over, snowstorm cost estimates are starting to trickle in.

Town of Aurora: More than $100,000.

Town of Hamburg: More than $500,000.

City of Buffalo: An estimated $3 million, as of Saturday.

And that’s only the beginning.

Already, some smaller communities – who say initial costs have already busted their budgets – are joining larger municipalities in hoping that storm costs are reimbursed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We haven’t even started putting together the figures yet,” said Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary F. Holtz. “We had a lot of contractors here. Our biggest hope is that FEMA comes through.”

“Our hope is there is FEMA money to reimburse. ... It will be serious money for these towns and villages and we don’t know where it will come from,” said Aurora Highway Superintendent David M. Gunner.

It is that hope that is already prompting a numbers game.

To be considered for FEMA reimbursement, the public cost of the storm needs to hit some general thresholds based on per-capita costs. Those amounts are roughly $3.3 million for Erie County and its individual government jurisdictions combined, as well as $27.3 million statewide.

The countywide threshold appears to have already been reached. The statewide estimate, to date, won’t be known until at least later this week, when Erie County and New York State have a more comprehensive tally on overall costs. And beyond that, costs are continuing, with flooding still an issue in some towns, and structural engineers now in the process of inspecting public buildings in those communities and others.

But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo early Monday said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the state would reach FEMA’s $27 million threshold, and sounded even more sure of federal funding, as he later visited residents along swollen Buffalo Creek in West Seneca.

“When you add up all that cost, I believe it will hit the $27 million threshold,” he said.

Reaching the federal thresholds would be good news for governments and individuals impacted by the storm. If the governments qualify for FEMA reimbursement, then individuals may also qualify for FEMA assistance under a different, but related program. Individuals could qualify for up to $32,900 per household for storm-related costs not covered by their insurance. Just reaching the thresholds, however, doesn’t ensure FEMA reimbursement. Once the government costs are submitted to FEMA, the agency will then determine if all the expenses quality under FEMA rules.

Snow removal, for example, is not always a covered expense, although it appears it would be in this case.

“The county must experience record or near-record snowfall to qualify for reimbursement of snow-removal activities,” said Alison Kohler, a FEMA external affairs specialist.

Local officials have said the storm reflected record snowfalls for distinct periods of time, with some communities getting as much as 80 inches of snow in less than one week – more snow than some typically get in an entire season.

If snow-removal costs are in fact covered in this storm, that would make a big difference in whether or not the dollar thresholds are reached, Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe said.

Locally, Buffalo and Erie County are expected to have some of the biggest costs, with much of it reflecting overtime as well as the cost of outside contractors. The city has said it contracted for 45 pieces of additional equipment as soon as the storm hit. The county contracted with a prime contractor, who brought in subcontractors providing plows, tow trucks, front-end loaders and other equipment.

Small communities did the same, but on a smaller scale.

“Most, if not all the Southtowns communities took it upon themselves to go out and find this heavy equipment that hadn’t been procured already,” said Hamburg Supervisor Steven Walters. Beyond that are the costs to the state of equipment and crews shifted to Erie County and Western New York from other parts of the state.

Cuomo on Monday ticked off a list of contributions from other governments around the state, including 85 firefighters and various pieces of equipment from New York City, Yonkers Fire Department equipment, dump trucks from Syracuse, and a host of other contributions from Rochester, Long Island and other communities. Those costs, Cuomo said, will go toward reaching the $27 million threshold.

News Staff Reporters Michelle Kearns, Janice L. Habuda, Sandra Tan and Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.