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City Refines Plans for Municipal Building Flood Repairs; FEMA Funding Process Moving Slowly

Image from drone footage taken July 11, 2023, from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
A year after the July 2023 flood and after months clarifying which repairs are needed and what FEMA might fund, the city of Montpelier will be working with its consultant — Stevens and Associates of Brattleboro — to develop a detailed plan to submit to the FEMA this November (with hopes of approval by January 2025).

Those are the first steps. But when money might actually flow to the city and major flood repair and mitigation work can begin is unknown. At a city council meeting June 26, at which an amendment to Stevens’ contract was approved on a 5–1 vote, City Manager Bill Fraser said “this is not going to be fast, as much as we all would like it to be.” 

Fraser noted that Waterbury did not move into a new city hall until five years after Tropical Storm Irene. He said working to get FEMA funding for flood damage to municipal buildings has at times been “extraordinarily frustrating.”

Kurt Motyka, director of the Public Works Department and a member of a staff committee that has been working on a flood repair plan for municipal buildings, told The Bridge that the baseline plan that Stevens will develop detailed cost estimates for includes “dry floodproofing” city hall and the fire station, elevating utilities, building new DPW offices at the city garage, and rearranging city hall offices — all in a way that meets city, state, and federal codes and standards.

The Planning Department could move upstairs from the basement and council chambers to the city hall basement, he said. Public bathrooms could be located in the basement too, if this plan moves forward.

A Stevens report presented to the city council on May 22 suggested that FEMA might be convinced to pay for part or all of the cost of an addition to city hall and a new fire station and repurposing the existing fire station for offices, but Motyka said that since then the city has received clear guidance that right now FEMA only wants to see the costs needed to “make the city whole again,” including repairs mandated by the city’s codes and standards, such as elevating utilities. “We need to provide the lowest cost option,” he said.

The possible new construction described earlier by Stevens as a “preferred alternative” included filling the city hall basement with concrete, building a new fire station and city hall addition, and repurposing the existing fire station for offices, for a total cost of $16.3 million. 

At the June 26 city council meeting, Bob Stevens of Stevens and Associates said he thinks the city might still be able to request alternative FEMA funding for some or all of the costs of new construction after the baseline funding plan is approved.

Assistant City Manager Kelly Murphy said at the meeting that the current proposal “sets the floor for what FEMA will give.” However, Motyka acknowledged in his interview that obtaining FEMA funding for these more expensive projects could be a “tough sell.”

The city does not need to follow through with the exact baseline plan it will submit to FEMA later this year, Motyka explained. The city could take that money and do something different, like fill the city basement with concrete or build a new fire station, but if FEMA won’t pay for those things, the city would have to bond to pay for any extra costs involved, he said.

Under the contract extension with Stevens approved by the council on June 26, the firm will “further develop the design of the minimum codes and standards alternatives to obtain an opinion of project cost which will be used by FEMA to establish the insurance and FEMA contribution to the reconstruction.” The $365,075 cost of the contract extension is expected to ultimately be covered by FEMA.

The estimated budget for the baseline projects, to be refined through further analysis, is $5 million for floodproofing city hall and raising the utilities, $1.5 million for floodproofing the fire station, and, $95,000 for minor floodproofing at the police station, according to a memo submitted by Stevens to the city. 

The memo does not include an estimate for building a new DPW office at the garage, but Motyka said the city hopes FEMA would cover that cost. “Even if city hall is floodproofed, having our DPW offices in the basement again would carry some risk,” he said. “We can’t guarantee water won’t come into the basement.” Since the flood, DPW administrators have been working at desks in the training room at the city garage.

Dry floodproofing involves digging around a building’s exterior, installing a waterproof membrane and sealing any possible penetration via pipes, Motyka said. If the city hall chambers are moved to the basement, the chambers will include waterproof components that can easily be “hosed down” in case another flood breaches the planned dry floodproofing, he said.