New York State has refused Lackawanna's request for help paying for more than $550,000 in costs associated with the four-day inferno at an industrial park on the former Bethlehem Steel property in early November 2016.
The rebuff came in the form of a two-paragraph letter to Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski from Terence O'Leary, executive deputy commissioner for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
So Lackawanna will now try to recoup some of the $550,000 from the property owner, a city official said Monday.
Details of the state's rejection were brought before the City Council Monday night during its regular session attended by a smattering of residents.
In the letter, O'Leary explained the support the state already provided during the fire that tore through the 1-million-square-foot structure owned by Great Lakes Industrial Development at 3175 Lake Shore Road, also called Route 5.
"Throughout the week-long effort to extinguish the fire, the state provided assets to assist the city with the firefighting mission. While assets were provided during the mission, financial assistance to reimburse the city for costs incurred is not available," O'Leary stated in the letter.
Workers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Health fanned the neighborhoods immediately impacted by the fire, which sent up clouds of black smoke that could be seen from miles away. The state workers tested air and water quality, analyzed ground samples, and educated residents on public health concerns in dealing with the toxic soot from the fire. State Department of Transportation workers assisted State Police in the closing of parts of Route 5 for six days.
Szymanski, meanwhile, realized that as months went by after his formal request to the state for help, the answer would be no. In February, he enlisted the city’s contracted lobbying firm – Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese and Associates – to help secure state funding.
"They took so long getting us an answer I could see where it was going," said Szymanski. "It took a while and then the letter came. The fire cost us a pretty penny and we are once again disappointed, but we will move on."
Much of the $550,000 – paid in full from the city fund reserve – covered emergency demolition fees from two dismantling companies called to the scene, Apollo Dismantling Services of Niagara Falls and Empire Dismantling Corp. of Grand Island.
On Monday night, City Counsel Antonio Savaglio addressed the letter during the council's work session.
"The state is not giving us anything," Savaglio confirmed. "To recover the demo costs and other costs we are adding a levy to Great Lakes' taxes. We'll be meeting with company officials next week to work out a payment plan...We realize it would be too much of a burden to pay it all at once."
Complicating the issue was the lack of fire insurance on the building, said Savaglio.
"They did not have fire insurance on the building and unfortunately there is no state requirement for any building -- home or business – to have fire insurance," said Savaglio. "Under the city code state General City Law, if we do emergency work onsite we are entitled to recover costs of the work."
Ironically, Great Lakes owned a demolition firm, and that firm was willing to do the work, but Lackawanna could not allow them on the premises until the onsite investigation was complete, said Savaglio.
"We incurred emergency demolition costs to ensure safety of the firefighters and to keep the fire from spreading," said Savaglio.
Philip J. Pantano, spokesman for the partnership that owns Great Lakes, said the firm had no comment.
The fire resulted in Lackawanna city workers racking up an estimated $88,956 in overtime from three departments: fire, $70,074; police, $16,471, and public works, $2,410. Lackawanna did not have to pay another $55,000 in overtime for City of Buffalo firefighters because of the mutual aid agreement between municipalities.
More than 100 firefighters from multiple agencies fought the blaze that burned from Nov. 7-11. A state of emergency lasted for 11 days, from Nov. 10-21.
Council president Keith Lewis acknowledged the city's responsibility for overtime costs.
"We have to eat the overtime costs," Lewis said. "It was unavoidable."
Nearly 20 businesses were housed in the former steel mill owned by Great Lakes Industrial Development. The businesses most heavily damaged included Dr. Bob’s Storage and Industrial Material Recycling.
An official report on the cause of the fire has not yet been released, said Savaglio.
"The cause has not been established, but I believe arson has been ruled out," said Savaglio.
The Buffalo Fire Department was the lead investigating agency. In May, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said the investigation was "very close" to completion. Earlier this month Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced Whitfield's retirement.
The status of the fire investigation could not be determined. Buffalo city hall spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge could not provide an update when contacted Tuesday afternoon.