Accounting for Mother Nature: Reams of paperwork

“The dollars are so large, we really have to make sure there’s no mistakes.”

Binders full of data needed to justified Ridgefield storm costs to get FEMA aid.—Jake Kara photo

If another serious storm hits town, the finance department might need a new book shelf.

Seven hefty binders tell the story of Irene, Alfred and now Sandy through a lens that a pocket calculator would find riveting.

The CliffsNotes version of the multi-volume tome is that the town has spent around a million dollars cleaning up from mega storms in the last two years, and it’s batting two-for-two in seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Unfortunately we’re pretty good at it now,” said Town Controller Kevin Redmond about keeping track of costs during natural disasters.

Invoices, rental receipts, photographs of damage, overtime paperwork — it’s all part of the town’s disaster accounting. It’s tedious work, but it backs up Ridgefield’s six-figure claims when seeking money from the federal government.

“The dollars are so large, we really have to make sure there’s no mistakes,” Mr. Redmond said.

He participates in the town’s emergency preparedness drills, just as first responders, emergency planners and volunteers do, and during storms, he attends meetings at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

“I think everyone at the EOC, they understand the importance of the financial side of it,” he said.

He offers guidance on what to keep track of as responders do their work, but he acknowledges record keeping isn’t and shouldn’t be their top priority, especially in the height of the storm.

“We don’t want the tail wagging the dog… I tell them get whatever documentation you can at the time. We can go back to vendors and get the proper documentation after the fact, if need be.”

The town has been successful in its attempts to get reimbursed by FEMA, receiving not just money to cover all “out of pocket” expenses, but wear-and-tear costs and volunteer time.

“FEMA allows you reimbursement for things like equipment usage… We don’t really have an out-of-pocket for use of a fire truck, for instance,” Mr. Redmond said.

One addition to the record-keeping tasks was photographing all the damage with GPS-enabled cameras. After Sandy, the town had thousands of pictures of downed trees.

“What we have is a picture and it’s geotagged,” Mr. Redmond said. “We can marry that up to each of the invoices. They’ll see an invoice for debris removal and maybe it references Blackman Road. Well, we’re going to see all the pictures and the geotag for all the trees that went down on Blackman Road.”

Another change was that debris removal contractors are now paid by weight.

“One of the things FEMA was concerned about was, we work with our local tree guys and we know that they’re all good and know that their pricing is reasonable because we know the market,” Mr. Redmond said. “FEMA wants you to bid on unit price — on weight.”

The town is seeking around $338,000 in money from FEMA for Sandy — in the ballpark of the damage from the last storms.

Some $114,000 of that was for around 2,400 hours put in by police, fire, highway and parks and rec employees. That compares with $116,000 for overtime related to Irene and $98,000 related to Alfred.

Another $185,000 went to contractors — largely private tree and cleanup crews that augment the work by highway department — so far. That’s in the ballpark of $165,000 debris removal relating Irene, but much less than $249,000 that was spent after Alfred.

“Even now they’re still incurring some debris removal costs,” Mr. Redmond said.

Some $36,000 was for “other costs” like materials and supplies, and $3,500 was spent on renting equipment.

The town also spent some $60,000 in roof work at the Yanity building, but Mr. Redmond said he expects that to be covered by insurance.

“If we don’t receive the full amount in insurance then we could submit that to FEMA,” Mr. Redmond said.

This week, Mr. Redmond was expected to have a “kick-off” meeting with FEMA to start the claims filing process.

“We hope that we can use the same template that we used in the last two storms,” he said.

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