County council looks to help property owners

Sussex County Council members on Tuesday, March 30, approved county staff pursuing a program that would aim to provide assistance to some property owners whose homes have been damaged by flooding. The grant assistance comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and is intended to help prevent flood damage where it is severe and repeated.

Under the FEMA program, funds from the National Flood Insurance Program – garnered through a small fee on NFIP policies – could be used to help property owners raise their homes above the historic flood level, make drainage improvements or re-grade the surrounding land to keep floodwater away. County staff said they will work with the county engineering department to determine in each case the best mechanism for improvements using the grants.

The requirements to qualify for the grants are stringent. The property must have NFIP flood insurance and a documented history of flood damage, as well as providing a survey of its flood elevation and cost estimates for the proposed improvement project.

The funds are applied for annually, in December, by local governments and are administered by those local governments, based on a Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) requirement. DNREC also sets the exact formula that determines eligibility.

Another requirement under the program is that property owners pay at least 25 percent of the cost of the improvement project. Existing programs have used that 25/75 owner/FEMA cost split.

But on March 30, some council members said they felt the split was too generous.

“It seems like a big giveaway for one property owner when others in the same neighborhood could benefit,” said Councilman George Cole. “I don’t like the percentages.”

While mollified that the program does not use tax dollars to fund the projects but instead uses the insurance buyers’ fees, Cole said he felt the cost should be shared more evenly between owner and FEMA, permitting the overall pool of FEMA grant money to go further, to more property owners, if in lesser amounts.

County staff pointed out that the eligibility criteria “is pretty stringent,” requiring that there be a severe and repeat flooding problem. “It’s difficult to qualify,” they said.

While most of the projects in Delaware have been in New Castle County, staff members said 90 percent of those had used the 25/75 cost split, while others used a 50/50 split – the latter for exactly the reason Cole proposed a more even split: to spread the grant money further.

“These are waterfront properties,” Cole pointed out. “These are affluent land owners, typically. This is another government program that seems awful generous.”

He recommended the county opt for a 50/50 split on funding it receives for the program.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver took issue with Cole’s characterization of eligible properties as being owned by the affluent.

“There are people in my district who are having problems, and they’re not affluent,” she countered.

Eligibility for the program, staff again noted, comes down to the site-specific amount of flooding damage they property has had. The NFIP has little power to raise its insurance rates, they pointed out, and the grants are intended to prevent future outlay of insurance payments for these repeatedly flooded properties.

County staff offered a list of eligible properties they said had been developed based on calls and letters from property owners. The county and DNREC have been investigating flooding problems based on calls, they noted. But no notification about the grant program has been made to the general public, as yet.

Beyond the proposed change in the cost share ratio, county staff said they would also now be using local architects and engineers – rather than county staff – to administer the projects. That will permit the county to attribute the administrative time to the individual allotment of grant funding and the individual property owner, rather than have it go, uncompensated, on the county’s tab.

Council members were largely behind the two changes to the program, voting 4-1 to approve them. Deaver objected to the 50/50 split, emphasizing, “The bulk of the people in my district are not wealthy.”

“They don’t do any means testing,” Cole pointed out. “More people will be able to take advantage of the program.”

“It makes sense to help more people,” agreed Council President Vance Phillips.

In the previous round of grant funding from the program, 16 homes in Sussex County were addressed. That number is likely to increase with the new 50/50 funding split.

Also on March 30:

• Representatives of the U.S. Census Bureau addressed council members to highlight the importance of the public completing and returning their 2010 Census forms, particularly for its potential impact on funding from the federal government.

The funding ending up in Delaware as the result of the 10-year Census works out to $1,312 per person per year. That means Delaware loses more than $13,000 in funding over 10 years for each and every person who is not counted in the Census.

• In response to inquiries about how staff handles council members’ requests for information, County Administrator David Baker affirmed that the staff attempts to handle such requests – and those from the public – as quickly as possible. “Some are more challenging,” he said, “and require more time and effort.”

• Cole agreed to introduce a proposed ordinance that would impose a six-month moratorium on the county considering any ordinance that would address casinos operating in Sussex County, outside of individual municipalities.

He emphasized that the measure would not impose a moratorium on casinos being built in the county but affects only the county’s ability to consider legislation that would set rules and limits on such projects.

The move received limited support from opponents of casino projects, who have been attending the council’s weekly meetings and asking council members to publicly oppose and/or outright ban the construction of casinos in the area.

The ordinance will be introduced and could be voted upon at a future council meeting.