Common Council defers FEMA flood plain maps for 2 more weeks
At tonight’s Common Council meeting, the vote was unanimous to defer the issue of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood plain maps for another two weeks to allow time for Congressman Paul Ryan and the city staff to work with FEMA on the issue of the flood plain maps, which everyone agrees are wrong.
Frank Pacetti, city administrator, gave a brief synopsis of the issues and the timeline as it unfolded. Pacetti said that “this was a very complex issue. FEMA performs this routine process every 10 years. It takes them 15 years to do it, but . . . this is a typical Federal project. The process is more important than the issues.” The last time the maps were updated was back in 1995-1996.
The city is engaged in two major developments: Leona’s Rolling Meadows subdivision, and the Strawberry Creek subdivision. “Significant changes to the topography have been made since these two developments. All of this was done in a legal engineered setting. The city met all their requirements. But, the documents were not received by FEMA. Everyone thought they had the information they required, but they didn’t. FEMA did not respond.” The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Sewer-Pack both agree that the maps are incorrect.
“We are at the end of the process now,” Pacetti continued. “FEMA is now done with the maps. These are final maps. In concert with FEMA rules, we must adopt the maps and the ordinance by June 19th. Why should we approve incorrect maps? Because they carry a big stick. Come June 19th, the maps are official. Homes designated to be in the flood plain mean flood insurance is required. And, there is only one place that you can purchase the flood insurance from. You guessed it, FEMA. Or, you can purchase it from some strange off-shore company, but you’ll pay five to seven times what FEMA charges. For a home in the $250,000 to $300,000 range, with $125,000 in contents, a homeowner would pay $450 a year. If you lived in a riskier area, it could cost as much as $3,000 a year.”
Click here to read the story about the issue as it was discussed by the City Plan Commission on May 10th: FEMA Flood Plain Maps Not Approved by City Plan Commission.
“And, what happens if we don’t approve the maps? FEMA doesn’t care. The Kenosha residents currently in the flood plain would have their policies cancelled. Plus, they would suspend their funds to the community in the affected areas. We would be placed on Federal watchdog status. All Federal funding for Community Development Block Grants, HOMES, etc., would be suspended. There are numerous ways the city can be harmed,” said Pacetti.
“Last week, we had a good meeting with the DNR and Sewer-Pack. There is no way to change the maps prior to the approval. Our only option is that we have the information needed. They’ve agreed to an expedited process to amend the maps. Congressman Paul Ryan, with his involvement, was successful in getting FEMA to agree to 30 days, not the usual 90 days. They are highly motivated to get this done because it’s the right thing to do for the city of Kenosha,” concluded Pacetti.
Attorney Michael McTiernan then spoke and gave a little more history on the topic. “Back in 1999, when we were developing the Strawberry Creek properties, we made certain that the subdivision was not in the flood plain. Both the DNR and Sewer-Pack testified that it was not in the flood plain. There are 150 homeowners in that subdivision. An additional 39 properties in Strawberry Creek are now in the flood plain. We hope to receive financial support from the city to help the homeowners,” he said.
Five homeowners then spoke, expressing their views on the subject. An officer from Leona’s Rolling Meadows Homeowner’s Association stated that “we represent $1.1 million in tax revenue.” He expressed everyone’s frustration in communicating about the maps issue. “Please help provide transparency on how the owners will be affected. Who/what is being done? What Day One action will take place when the maps are approved?” he wanted to know.
Another homeowner, Mario del Rio, called for “budget dollars to be set aside to help rectify the situation. Can we have your promise that your support will continue?” John Weiss, a small boat owner in the harbor since 1962, stated that he has seen no maps showing the new flood plain parameters in that area. “When the water in the lake was high, people did work on their properties, some legally, some not. We need to find out more about where we’re at. Nothing has been said about us.” Randy Ehlert urged the council “not to forget about us in the back end. Getting a letter three weeks before doesn’t do much.”
Pacetti stated that “he’d hate to set up the expectation that we have control. We and the DNR are ready to go. We have all the old information we need, and we are ready to submit it to the DNR to start the 30-day process.” Mayor Keith Bosman reminded the council that “the June 19th date will not be changed. Ryan has pushed to shorten the time, but we have gotten no relief on the June 19th date. Ryan also tried extending the date, but it was a no go.”
Alderperson Rocco LaMacchia asked if it would hinder things if we deferred for two weeks, and the answer from Pacetti was that it would have no effect. Alderperson David Bogdala stated that “there’s been poor communication all the way around, and I’ve voiced my opinion on this very issue on many occasions. I’m the one that called Ryan and begged him to get involved when he came to Kenosha. So, we’ve been working on this together for the last three weeks. We do need to provide a guarantee. The Federal government has bungled this. We need to take the lead on this issue. Now, all are engaged. I was not aware of the meeting with the DNR. The alderperson from the 16th district was not aware either. We need to pledge our financial support. This whole thing has been so backwards. We all know the maps are wrong. But, we’re forced to approve them. This is extortion. Hopefully, we’ll be able to shed some additional light on this. Are we the only ones going through something like this?” he asked.
Bogdala called for a detailed report of the city’s action plan and a pledge for 100% of support from the staff and financial resources. “This 30-day thing is news to me. In the meeting with the DNR which took place a couple of Tuesdays ago, they said the amendment process could take one to two years. Can we get $750,000 out of nowhere?” (He was referring to the $750,000 the city has stated that it can put toward the renovation of the Simmons ball field.) “We need to stand up for what is right. Yes, it’s in my district. And, yes, it’s my neighbors who are affected. I want a detailed list, with financial impact, where the money will be drawn from, etc. And, I hope they get it done. If not, I won’t support it.” He further stated that he’s not feeling very confident. “I keep going back to the question I asked at the City Plan Commission meeting: ‘If this were your house, your friends, what would you be doing?’ We need to support the right thing moving forward.”
Alderperson G. John Ruffolo agreed. He said, “Not only do we need to get Congressman Ryan involved, we need to call our two senators as well. We need to contact all three elected officials. We need them to put the pressure on Washington. And, let me tell you a thing or two about flood insurance. It doesn’t cover all the contents of your basement. It covers your furnace, maybe your washer and dryer, but that’s it. I support the deferral, but I suggest regular scheduled meetings.”
Alderperson Daniel Prozanski spoke on the meaning of the word, ‘immediate.’ “When I tell my son to go up to his room immediately and clean his room, I expect him to run up those stairs immediately and start cleaning his room. But, the word ‘immediate’ means something different to government agencies. It means 60 days, 90 days. To them, that’s immediate. What are we hoping to accomplish in these two weeks?” he asked. Prozanski stated that “without a plan or direction, it will be an exercise in futility.”
Alderperson Patrick Juliana stated that the “maps represent almost a complete city. Where are all the affected people?” he wanted to know. “Accusations and rhetoric won’t get it done. We need action in these next two weeks. We need direction and a timeline. I’m one that has no faith in the Federal programs out there,” he stated. “This is political black mail. I believe we’re just buying time for the inevitable. I hope and pray that we’re being told the truth here. But, I don’t think so. They lied to us, cost us industry. I’ll vote for the deferral, but I think, in the end, we will be very disappointed.”
Alderperson Steve Bostrom stated that he hoped we had a strong understanding of what will happen after June 19th. “I want some assurances after June 19th. I’d like to know that the city is behind me and fighting for me. I applaud Alderperson David Bogdala for asking the question point blank. You need to give us the assurances that you’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
Alderperson Michael Orth also stated that he has no problem deferring for two weeks. “But, we need to put a plan in place. I’m nervous about the financial impact. The city needs to devote some resources, put some money aside for the financial impact. To put money aside for flood insurance is not even possible. Maybe, a lawsuit would come against FEMA. The city did what was required. I agree with the terms, ‘black mail’ and ‘extortion.’ The city will fight. We did what was right. We followed the rules. The city can’t be put on trial here.”
Alderperson Scott Gordon said that he would also vote for the deferral. He thanked Bogdala for the legwork he’s done. “My heart goes out to these people. We are all on board.” Bogdala stated that, in his job in the operations world, he deals with crises every day. “The tactic is ‘divide and conquer.’ The plan should be able to be prepared in the next 24 to 48 hours. It’s straightforward, simple to do. The Federal government needs to get spanked at the end of the day. I’m pushing for a timeline to make sure communication is proper, and that we are prepared to react immediately, now, today, tomorrow. This got lost in the abyss of the government twice. Once, in 2007, when we protested the changes. And, then we didn’t hear anything until 2011. It just sat there. Again, it was in the abyss when no one could make phone calls. I agree with the gentleman from the 4th. We need to engage the senators as well. This can’t fall in the abyss of the government again. We are all hearing 30 days. My favorite quote is, ‘Trust, but verify.’”
Prozanski made one last comment, and that was to say that this issue spans several Federal administrations, several city administrations. Personnel changes have added to the complexity of the matter. “We are now at the whim of the current FEMA, the current administration.”
All three of the agenda items, the change in the zoning ordinances, creating a new subsection of the zoning ordinance to adopt the revised FEMA flood insurance rate maps, and to create, repeal and recreate various sections of the zoning ordinance regarding flood plains for the city of Kenosha to conform with FEMA and DNR regulations, were all unanimously deferred for two weeks.
Later, during the Alderpersons’ Comments section of the meeting, Bogdala made clear that the kind of financial support he was talking about was financial support the city could provide during the amendment process. “If flood insurance will be needed, it will be for the homeowners to deal with. What I was talking about was if we need to put financial funds behind the amendment process. We need to get the report and timeline done by June 4th.”