Storm costs eating up cash reserves

By Nicholas Johnson of the Leader
Posted 1/27/15

Without renewed federal help, the cost of repairing storm-damaged roads will continue eating away at Jefferson County's dwindling cash reserves, says county engineer Monte Reinders.

“We're …

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Storm costs eating up cash reserves


Without renewed federal help, the cost of repairing storm-damaged roads will continue eating away at Jefferson County's dwindling cash reserves, says county engineer Monte Reinders.

“We're spending more than we're taking in every year,” said Reinders, who is hopeful that Congress finds a way to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which has provided annual payments to timber-rich counties since its enactment in 2000. “It's not like getting Secure Rural Schools is a bonus for us. We're eating into cash reserves every year, especially when we have storms like we did in December.”


Winter storms are costing the county more than a million dollars so far this season, with more than $500,000 in repairs to roads.

The county received $350,000 from the Federal Highway Administration Jan. 7 to offset costs to repair Upper Hoh Road, which was washed out Thanksgiving Day, 2014. The administration awarded another $190,000 to the county Jan. 7 for repairs to South Shore Road after the Quinault River tore it up during December storms.

December storm damage to roads in Brinnon neighborhoods, such as The Lazy C, Snow Creek and Dosewallips, did not rise to the necessary cost threshold to garner Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement. The county has spent more than $100,000 in repairing Dosewallips Road alone.

“The problem is that the money gets spent before we get notified about any of that,” Reinders said about how his department often relies on its cash reserves before finding out if those expenditures will be reimbursed by state or federal agencies. “It's good news but we've been biting our nails for a month now.”


For the past few years, the county's Public Works Department has received roughly $430,000 each year in federal funding through the act. Congress last reauthorized the act in October 2013 for one year and has yet to do so since.

“We can never budget for it because we never know if it's going to happen,” said Reinders, adding that Jefferson is the second most dependent county in the state when it comes to that funding, partly because some 60 percent of the county is comprised of federal forest and park land.

“You just don't put revenues in the budget you can't count on. We don't put unknown emergency repairs in the expenditure column either.”

Jefferson County Administrator Philip Morley said the act was adopted following the federal listing of endangered and threatened species, including the spotted owl, which resulted in less timber harvesting in federal forests.

About 85 percent of the act's annual payout to counties is divided equally between schools and road construction and maintenance.

Until 2008, the county received some $1.35 million each year through the act, representing a quarter of the Public Works Department's annual operating budget. That has fallen to about $430,000 in recent years and could fall to $0 if Congress fails to reauthorize the act.

That's why the county's commissioners unanimously agreed Jan. 20 to sign and send a letter to the region's Congressional delegation – Rep. Derek Kilmer, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray.

“It’s critical that Congress honor its century-old commitment to timber counties by immediately extending and funding the Secure Rural Schools Program,” said David Sullivan, chair of the county's board of commissioners. “We thank Rep. Kilmer and other members of the Washington congressional delegation who recognize this commitment and are working towards an agreement.”

Kilmer, Cantwell and Murray have supported reauthorizing the act, with Kilmer leading a Dec. 19, 2014 letter urging its renewal and speaking about it on the House floor Jan. 13.

“In the region I represent, Jefferson County is now struggling to repair a key access road that was washed out from a storm,” he said Jan. 13. “Without Secure Rural Schools funding to complete the repairs, the county is left hoping a state emergency declaration will provide needed funds.”

Reauthorization is expected to take until late this summer, if it happens at all.

“It's very much an open question as to whether we'll get any funding this year,” said Morley. “Certainly we need it. Certainly it would be in line with the traditional relationship between federal and local governments.”

Reinders said he is hopeful, but not holding his breath.

“When he [Kilmer] mentions Jefferson County by name in front of Congress in his speech, I think that shows he's committed to the issue,” Reinders said. “If your bank account's low and your car breaks down, it's a real drag, so if you're not receiving these important payments and you have damage from storms like we've had, it's a real challenge. You can eat through half a million or even a million dollars in a big hurry with these major storm events.”


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