Harford officials try to set record straight on $100,000 allocation for hurricane relief

Harford County is not writing a $100,000 check for hurricane relief, a top aide to the county executive said Tuesday evening.

Under legislation introduced last month, the county merely is allocating the money from its cash reserves to cover costs associated with aiding communities in Texas and Florida cleaning up after two major hurricanes, Director of Administration Billy Boniface testified during a County Council public hearing on the legislation.

The county has not yet received any requests for aid, despite its offers after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston, Texas area in August and Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September, Boniface, told council members, as he sought to clear up any misconceptions about the proposed allocation contained in Bill 17-016.

“What we’re asking is to move $100,000 from fund balance into an account that would be used to support . . . jurisdictions that were affected by the hurricanes,” Boniface said.

Council approval would allow the money to be allocated and available for use. If not used, it would revert to the fund balance when the current fiscal year ends on June 30, 2018, Boniface said.

“We haven’t had any requests for assistance, so we’re quite comfortable with you holding it over for another week if you need to,” he said.

Councilman James McMahan said he has heard concerns from constituents that Harford is sending money for hurricane relief.

“This in no way sends a check for $100,000 somewhere,” he said.

The county would use the money to reimburse itself for the cost of sending personnel and equipment to help local governments in Florida or Texas, according to Boniface.

He recalled when the county sent workers to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005. Harford workers helped a community in Mississippi repair water and sewer infrastructure.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA, would reimburse up to 75 percent of Harford County’s costs to provide aid in Texas and Florida, as it did after Katrina, Boniface said.

Treasurer Robert Sandlass said allocating money before any requests for aid are made means county agencies would not have to make cuts or move funds from other parts of their budgets.

“As everyone knows this is a long recovery period for these jurisdictions,” Boniface said. “The need may arise for us to help them at some point; [making] these funds available will allow us to respond to that need.”

McMahan said he is not in favor of sending county money to help, but “I am all for sending trucks and remunerating ourselves out of this fund.”

Two members of the public took issue with the allocation, even after hearing Boniface’s explanation.

“Even though you’re not giving money, you’re using resources that taxpayers have paid into,” Jean Salvatore, of Bel Air, said. “I don’t really think its an appropriate use of our resources in Harford County.”

Salvatore stressed she is not “a Scrooge” and said she has donated money and is gathering supplies for hurricane relief.

She questioned why aid isn’t being considered for Puerto Rico, which has been devastated by Hurricane Maria. The legislation, which was introduced Sept. 12 eight days before Maria made landfall in the U.S. territory, states the money would be used for Harvey and Irma recovery efforts.

She said the plan “sounds like a blank check to me even though it’s not going to be money” provided. She said she wants to know more about how the money and resources would be allocated and how the county would be reimbursed

“I think, with climate change, we’re going to see a lot more of these kinds of crises, so who do we support and who do we not support?” Salvatore said.

Janet Parker, of Edgewood, echoed Salvatore’s comments and said there are a number of local needs the $100,000 allocation could support.

“I do think a lot of us have risen to the occasion and sent resources sent goods, tried to provide for the people in those critical situations,” she said of local efforts to help Harvey and Irma victims.

Councilman Joe Woods, who was not present Tuesday, has been deployed to Florida with FEMA. He works for the federal agency.

Parker said, if there is any change in how the allocation would be used, “I hope it could come back up again to be discussed and ask the citizens about how to use that money.”

The council is expected to vote on the bill during its next meeting Oct. 17, Council President Richard Slutzky said following the hearing.

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