Marlinton votes against FEMA buy-outs
Fearing loss of tax and utility revenue and the possibility of losing potential flood protection, Marlinton town council voted against participating in FEMA buy-outs for flood prone properties last Wednesday.
The council held a long discussion at its April 14 regular meeting on whether to participate in a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program in which the government would purchase flood-prone properties and give them to the town.
Marlinton building inspector Dick Groseclose briefed the council on the results of a March 9 public meeting, during which 31 Marlinton-area residents learned the details of the program.
"The main interest of the group was the buy-outs, which requires your vote to participate with FEMA," he said. "[FEMA manager] Ken Keaton indicated to me he would not put the time or money in Marlinton unless he saw the minutes of a meeting at which the council indicated a willingness to participate in the program."
The building inspector said severe restrictions came with the properties.
"There can be a garden there - there can be a lawn there - no structures - period," he said. "You can't put a municipal park there or anything like that. So, it is forever a lawn, basically."
Groseclose said the town faced a difficult decision and would have to balance the prospect of lost revenue with the desire to help property owners in flood-prone areas.ﾠﾠ
"You will have a loss of revenue for water, sewer, garbage collection, taxes, etcetera, plus, assuming the responsibility to mow the yards," he said. "You have to decide what's best for the town and what's best for those people and I'm glad it's your vote instead of mine."
Mutscheller said there was another serious drawback to the buy-out program.
"There's one thing that you also missed with regards to constraints on the property and that is flood protection projects," she said. "At least one of the properties requesting a buy out falls along the alignment of the levee.
"In meeting with the Corps of Engineers, the Corps indicates that if that property were accepted into the program that that would stop the local protection project and it would have to be redesigned to go around any property."
Mutscheller said the buy out program also prohibited subsurface construction, which would mean the Corps could not install underground drainage systems or anchors. She also noted that residents faced flood insurance rate hikes if they did not agree to sell their property, after agreeing to participate in the program.
Zorn said he opposed participation in the program.
"For these 31 people, it's good for them, but for overall Marlinton, I don't think it's good," he said.
Homeowners would be paid the appraised value of the property, minus any flood insurance payments previously paid out by FEMA. Councilmember Louise Barnisky noted, in some cases, previous insurance payments could be more than the current value of the property.
"I've been flooded twice and once we didn't have insurance," she said. "The other time we had insurance. Say I decided to sell my house - I want to give it to them and head on out of here -ﾠ they would give me a price. Then they would deduct what they paid me for the insurance, the last time, off of the house. Too far and and we wouldn't have nothing."
Mutscheller pointed out that only residents with multiple flood insurance payouts were eligible.
"There are guidelines," she said. "Four or more separate claim payments of more than $5,000 each, including building and contents payments, or two or more separate claim payments where the total of the claims payments exceeds the current value of the property."
Councilmember Loretta Malcomb said the loss of revenue resulting from the buy-outs would result in higher utility rates for the remainder of the town's residents.
"If all of these people are bought out and we lose all those customers - those water customers, sewer, trash collection and all that money from the tax base - then the prices will be raised for everyone else," she said.
Groseclose noted that another FEMA program, not requiring council approval, is available to help residents elevate their existing structures above flood plain level. Residents can receive up to $30,000 to help pay for the cost of elevating their house, but must pay out of pocket, up to $1,500, for a feasibility study.
On Barnisky's motion, the council voted 5-0 to not participate in the buy-out program. Councilmember Joe Smith was not present due to a recent illness.
West Virginia State Police (WVSP) officer David Malcomb spoke to council about law enforcement in Marlinton. The WVSP have provided police service in town for nine months, under a contract with the town council.
Malcomb requested copies of town ordinances.
"Specifically, what I'd be looking for is a loud music city ordinance, any kind of a curfew violation city ordinance and open container," he said. "Anything else the council feels needs to be enforced in the city. We just can't enforce it if we don't know the elements of the crime."
Mayor Dennis Driscoll said he would provide copies of the requested ordinances by Monday, April 19.
Malcomb reported, during their nine months on the job, the State Police have responded to 121 calls, made 13 arrests, written 18 summons and issued 204 warnings.
"We've given out a lot more warning tickets than summonses," he said. "If we can do a nice friendly reminder for someone - 'hey, don't be doing this' -ﾠ we much prefer a warning ticket."
"We do notice the calls for service starting to go down, which is what we want," he said.ﾠ "It shows we're being effective."
Malcomb asked the council for any positive or negative feedback on the State Police performance.
"If you know we're doing something wrong or if we can do something better, let me know," he said.
Councilmembers concurred that the WVSP performance had been excellent.
"I've only heard positive comments," said town recorder Robin Mutscheller.
"You can see the difference," said councilmember David Zorn.
Driscoll updated the council on the status of removal of abandoned and dilapidated structures. The mayor said the town attorney had warned him that burned out and unsafe structures were a serious liability danger for the town.
Driscoll said it would cost the town $40,000 - $50,000 to pay contractors to demolish and remove the 12 structures targeted for removal. He said he had been unable to find grant money to have the work done.
Mutscheller said loans are available to pay for the demolitions.
"There are low interest loans available for, specifically, this,"she said. "I gave our building inspector aﾠ pamphlet on the program. You could move forward. You wouldn't have to do 100 percent at one time."
"Forty thousand dollars to $50,000 would be cheaper than a lawsuit," said Malcomb.
Mutscheller suggested starting with the most dangerous structures and demolishing them one at a time.
Driscoll agreed to prepare a prioritized list of properties for removal, for council approval and investigate the low interest loans. He will update the council at the next regular meeting.
During the mayor's report, Driscoll informed the council that the recent boil water advisory was caused by a problem with a filter at the water plant. The mayor said sand had bypassed the filter and entered the water system.ﾠ The problem could not have been detected by routine maintenance, according to the mayor.
Zorn said town residents had asked him about a discount on the month's water rate.ﾠ
Driscoll replied that residents would have to appear at council to request a discount.
In other business, the council:
- paid current invoices for the wastewater / stormwater project: $26,194.50 to Kanawha Stone for construction; $38,500 to Hannah Engineering for technical services and $31,500 to Region IV, West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council for administrative costs.
- approved a request by project engineer DeWayne Hannah for expenditure of $15,807.21 from a contingency fund for cost overruns on the waste water treatment plant / storm water drainage project. The council also approved a 60-day extension, to June 16, for project completion.
- renewed a right of entry on town property for the Corps of Engineers to conduct testing involved with the proposed flood protection project.
- formed a committee to investigate a variance request from Kevin Spalding, of Charleston, to park a camper trailer behind McCall's Lodging. The committee will be composed of Mutscheller, Barnisky and councilmember Norris Long.
- conducted the second reading, by title only, of a proposed flood plain ordinance and unanimously ratified the ordinance.
- tabled action on purchase of the Code Red emergency notification service until June.
- tabled action on repair of planters in town.
- approved transfer of police department equipment to the fire department, as needed.