Bethany Beach prepares for funding push

As coastal Sussex Countians and voters nationwide anticipate this week’s election, Bethany Beach’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee has been preparing for a full-court press on whichever of the state’s top politicians end up as Delaware’s representatives in Washington, D.C., after Nov. 7.

Their goal: get the federal beach reconstruction funding the town — and neighboring South Bethany — have been anticipating for years, and finally get some sand back on the beach, perhaps in the fall of 2007.

“We need to get the money,” committee member and D.C.-based professional lobbyist John Himmelberg bottom-lined at their Oct. 28 meeting. “The authorization for the project was passed,” he reminded his fellow committee members. “But the appropriations are still needed to fulfill that authorization.”

Indeed, Congress did give the go-ahead for the two-town beach reconstruction project — the only remaining unreconstructed municipal beach on Delaware’s shore — before political tenor and budgetary concerns turned even further against federal funding for replenishment.

Despite the initial approval, funding through the annual appropriations and budgetary processes has been consistently stingy, initially parceled out for the engineering phase of the project — which has now been completed — and parsimoniously allotted in the 2006 budget at just $3 million of the estimated $15 million needed in federal funding to complete construction of the new beach.

So the project remains at a relative standstill.

Town efforts go unnoticed by some

It has left some citizens wondering exactly what is being done to get sand actually flowing onto the beach, IRC Chairwoman Julia Jacobsen acknowledged Oct. 28.

“There’s a lack of understanding about what is going on,” Jacobsen complained, saying she’d even been asked by some property owners why the town wasn’t trying to get sand on the beach. “I’m concerned that so many people thought nothing was happening when it just wasn’t true,” she added.

Jacobsen said more effort needed to be made to keep the town council, and citizens, informed about the committee’s ongoing and longstanding efforts toward that end.

The issue also came up at Oct. 27’s Budget and Finance Committee six-month budget review. Asked whether the town had funds to pay for a replenishment, Town Manager Cliff Graviet replied, “Beach replenishment isn’t something we budget for. It’s always been a state and federal project.”

Graviet said that in all the replenishment and reconstruction work done in the state, no town had ever even been asked to contribute financially. “And we don’t have the resources to,” he said, leading into discussion of the town’s anticipated transfer tax revenue shortfall.

Addressing the notion that the town might take matters into its own hands, Graviet noted that it takes an estimated $1.5 million to even get a dredging barge moved to the area and the pumping of sand started. He emphasized that the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control exerts complete control of the public beach in South Bethany, managing its conservation and restricting any application of addition sand to projects it controls.

“It’s their beach. They exert control,” Graviet said of DNREC.

The town manager also put to rest rumors that the town had stashed away $2 million of replenishment funding that, according to the rumor, it didn’t want state or federal officials to know about, lest it impact those funding sources.

“We have $1 million set aside for a catastrophic impact on the beach and boardwalk,” Graviet clarified, saying those funds were intended to make repairs needed to clean up and grant the town basic access to the beach after such a catastrophic event — certainly not nearly enough to perform any sort of replenishment, with an estimated $27 million price tag on reconstructing the joint Bethany-South Bethany project area.

Towns look to feds for funding

That leaves the towns reliant on federal and associated state funding for replenishment that is an increasingly desperate need.

As it stands now, another approximately $3 million in funding passed by the U.S. Senate is before the conference committee that will make final budget determinations for the 2007 fiscal year, weighed against no funding for the project in the U.S. House of Representatives version of appropriations.

The conference process traditionally leads into a vote on a compromise appropriations bill and possible signature from President George W. Bush, who has always opposed federal funding for such projects. Funding could be kept at Senate levels, increased, or, as in the past, cut somewhat.

“The most immediate thing is this $3 million,” Himmelberg said on Saturday. “This $3 million almost locks Congress in.”

Movement on the latest round of funding has been anticipated to happen after Congress returns from its pre-election break, Himmelberg said, and the possible agreement to fund the second $3 million to the project could imply momentum on the project that would be difficult to reverse.

With $6 million provided in the last two years, he said, it could be that Congress would up the ante in the future and even decide to complete funding with $8 million or so in the 2008 budget.

That would be a best-case scenario for the town, which would rely on state funding for the rest of the construction-phase costs, in a traditional 65-35 split of federal and state funds. A portion of state accommodations tax has been kept in a reserve for such projects and state officials have been almost as keen to get the project going as the two sets of townsfolk.

Congressional shake-up could mean delay

While the worst-case scenario for the project would be funding of less than $3 million in the coming year’s budget — or even no funding at all — Himmelberg also warned of possible further delays, past the anticipated post-election return to legislative session.

If Republicans lose control of either house of Congress, he said, that would mean a reshuffling of Congressional committees — including appropriations committees — with the Democrats taking over leadership.

“They won’t approve the existing appropriations bills,” Himmelberg said, “because they can wait until Jan. 1.”

The continuing resolution that has funded the federal government at 2006-fiscal-year levels since the end of that fiscal year on Sept. 30 could be extended in such a case, he said, buying time for transition to a Democrat-controlled Congress in January.

After that point, Himmelberg said, funding could be redistributed with Democratic Party priorities in mind, resulting in an entirely new set of appropriations bills, funding reviews and wave of deal-brokering on Capitol Hill. While appropriations bills could be passed in January, it could also be February or later — leaving Bethany and South Bethany waiting on tenterhooks until a definitive funding bill has been passed and signed into law.

Democrats may not be less likely to fund the project, and might even find it more deserving of fiscal priority than a Republican-controlled Congress has; but the possibility of an additional delay weighs especially heavy now, as the town watches its remaining beach dwindle under the pounding of heavy surf and wind.

The weather has not been kind to the two beaches this year, with summer storms and early fall nor’easters already having eaten the sands up under Bethany’s boardwalk and South Bethany’s beachfront homes and access stairs.

Town officials have admitted extreme concern over what might happen during the winter, reaching out to DNREC officials for reassurance that a temporary, emergency replenishment funded by the state would be forthcoming should the situation turn truly dire.

They’ve gotten those reassurances, but the sight of waves under the boardwalk and multi-million-dollar homes lingers in many minds as they await some word on funding for the so-called “50-year” beach reconstruction that would widen the beaches dramatically and create dunes, and thereby, they anticipate, help protect property, vital tourism and perhaps lives.

It was with that in mind that town council and IRC member Steve Wode asked Oct. 28 exactly how much funding the project needed to actually get sand pumped onto the beach. Himmelberg said the state was the entity that would determine that number, with DNREC officials waiting just as eagerly for the final federal budget numbers as town officials.

Tony Pratt, program administrator for DNREC’s Shoreline & Waterway Management Section, has repeatedly said the agency would wait for that final number — whenever it comes — before huddling with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and determining when, and if, the project could begin. The earliest hoped-for start date is still in the fall of 2007.

Pratt said funding shortfalls from this year’s budgetary process could mean waiting for 2008’s budget to be finalized, or for adjustments to the project’s scope that would allow it to be started with less than the estimated amount needed. That leaves the possibilities wide open – more fodder for concern in the two towns as they seek to rehabilitate their dwindling shorelines.

Rumors of short-term fix

The concern has reached enough of a fever pitch that misinformation and rumor have held high promise for some in the towns.

But reports that spoils from the current Assawoman Canal dredge might be used for temporary replenishment in Bethany or South Bethany were rejected as false this week, along with rumors of a possible “piggyback” on nearby Ocean City, Md.’s regular beach replenishment after its completion around Nov. 27.

Bethany Mayor Carol Olmstead and IRC member Bob Parsons noted the need to analyze spoils for suitability before they could even be considered for replenishment use — a process that requires months of outdoor storage. And they referred to a “disconnect” between government entities that had led to those rumors.

Council and IRC member Tracy Mulligan said his own research on the Ocean City notion had met a firm response that the Ocean City dredges were already reserved for work elsewhere after their Maryland job, so they won’t be heading north for a fix to Delaware beaches this fall either.

Instead, Bethany IRC members kept focused on the $3 million they hope to get from Congress this year and how best to ensure that — or better — happens.

Committee ready forpost-election push

On the recommendation of Jacobsen, Himmelberg, with his D.C. connections and experience, will serve as Bethany’s liaison with officials at the federal level. Parsons, with strong connections from his years of dealing with the issue of replenishment as a town council member and mayor, will liaise with state officials.

Himmelberg emphasized the need for the committee members to coordinate their efforts so as not to duplicate them or otherwise confuse the situation. With that in mind, Olmstead will remain the point-person with the lobbying and consulting firm hired by the town and South Bethany, Marlowe & Co.

In coordination with the efforts of Marlowe & Co., Jacobsen and Himmelberg suggested the town could use some face-to-face contact with its federal legislators, proposing that Olmstead and a committee member or two visit Sens. Joe Biden and Tom Carper in person to show their continued concern and support prior to any vote on the $3 million in proposed funding for the 2007 fiscal year.

Olmstead noted a call in the prior week from Carper’s representatives, saying he was “working very hard” on the issue of replenishment funding. Parsons noted a previous commitment from the senator to be the “go-to guy” on Delaware replenishment — a commitment Parsons said was being fulfilled. Still, Himmelberg emphasized a need for even strong supporters to sometimes be “refocused.”

And, given the pending elections, with both Carper and Rep. Mike Castle running for re-election, IRC members said they wanted to respond instantly to any changes in the makeup of Delaware’s congressional delegation or appropriations committee leadership, with an information packet that would explain the towns’ plight and work to get any new powerbroker fighting hard for federal replenishment funding.

Next steps considered

Jacobsen also asked Olmstead on Oct. 28 for an official commitment from the town council that beach replenishment is the town’s and council’s top priority.

“I can assure you it is our top priority,” Olmstead replied.

Jacobsen acknowledged the commitment but said she felt an official statement of that priority would be helpful to the towns’ cause. Olmstead agreed to put the issue before the council for an official statement, while also noting plans to add beach replenishment as a regular item for updates at town council meetings.

Meanwhile, Himmelberg was also looking further ahead, noting that acquiring enough federal funding to get the reconstruction project started was just the beginning of a long-term plan to help preserve the town’s beach.

While a “50-year” reconstruction is so named because it is considered to generate a 50-year commitment from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the reconstructed beach, Himmelberg emphasized that appropriations for such maintenance were still required and perhaps just as likely to face opposition in Congressional budgetary cycles.

Himmelberg said that even if the town is successful in getting full funding for the reconstruction project, it will have to plan ahead for further efforts every three to five years, to help obtain maintenance funding. And, he said, long-term efforts may prove even more complex than the current work to get construction funding.

Under the latest notions on erosion control, region-wide plans are considered the wave of the future. Pratt has said he is looking to coordination with Maryland officials and beyond, to help harness the natural mechanisms of sand movement that already takes sands from Ocean City’s beaches northward across Delaware’s shores.

Himmelberg said the town would be looking at coordinating its own efforts with Fenwick Island and Ocean City, as part of keeping a reconstructed beach intact well into the future.