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Helping those who need it most in Somerset County

Some residents of Somerset County — the part of Maryland that sustained the worst damage from last fall's Superstorm Sandy — are upset that the state's application for federal disaster aid would exclude from eligibility those with an income of greater than $48,000 a year for a household of two. That would leave out almost half of the county's homeowners, including teachers, firefighters and other working families, critics say. The cutoff for eligibility is determined by the federal government, but other states have applied for waivers to that requirement. Why not Maryland?

For good reason, it turns out.

The aid in question is through a community development block grant administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Somerset County homeowners who suffered damage from Sandy may be eligible for other pools of aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the state. Maryland's allocation of CDBG funding is small, just $8.6 million, and state officials say they are intent on making sure the funds go to those who need them most.

To do that, it's important to keep the $48,000 income threshold in place, at least for the time being. These grants are disbursed on a first come, first served basis, and opening eligibility to people with higher incomes from the start would almost certainly mean that people with fewer resources would be shut out. The reason is that the need in Somerset County far outstrips Maryland's federal allotment.

The state has decided to dedicate most of its pool of money ($6.8 million) to housing aid, with $1 million reserved to help affected businesses and $400,000 each for the state and county to administer the program. Although the federal government is not due to give its approval until the end of this month, the county has already begun taking applications for the aid.

According to the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, 889 housing units in Somerset County were affected by the storm. Of those, 255 were homes owned by low-income families (defined as making less than 50 percent of the county's median income). The $48,000 threshold represents 80 percent of the county's median income, so some additional number of households will be eligible under the criteria in Maryland's aid application.

Homes that are repaired under this program must be brought up to code, if they are not already, and they must be raised per county standards to two feet above the flood plain. Typically, the state is finding that Sandy-damaged homes in Somerset County are costing $70,000 to repair ($20,000 of which represents the cost of elevating them). Homes that must be replaced altogether are running about $140,000. The upshot is that the state estimates that it will be able to provide aid through this program to between 75 and 100 households. In other words, the need among those with very low incomes is much greater than the amount of money available.

If, for some reason, Maryland's allotment of money is not used up by those who fall below the $48,000 threshold, it can revise its application to the federal government and ask for a waiver, but there is no advantage to doing so now. New York and New Jersey have requested flexibility on the income limits, but the situation isn't directly comparable since they are receiving vastly more aid under this program than Maryland. New Jersey is eligible for $1.83 billion, and New York State can receive $1.71 billion, plus another $1.77 billion for New York City alone.

It is also important to note that while Republican state Del. Charles J. Otto and John K. Phoebus, chairman of the non-profit Somerset County Long Term Recovery Committee, have complained about the O'Malley administration's decision not to seek an income waiver, the Somerset County government has not. Somerset County Commission President Rex Simpkins, a Democrat, said county officials asked the governor's office to consider the matter but that they were of no mood to complain about anyone who is trying to bring $8.6 million in aid to the county. "We're not at odds with anyone," he said. "Everyone has been outstanding to us."

Federal disaster relief is not an infinite pool of money, and Maryland's share of it is not going to change depending on what the O'Malley administration writes in its application. Under those circumstances, it makes the most sense to help those who need it most, and that's what the state is doing.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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