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More funds for debris cleanup prompt debate

After a discussion that turned from “responsibility to liability,” the Pike County Commission allocated another $150,000 from its rainy day fund for debris cleanup on Monday.

Commissioners met for more than hour in a special called meeting to discuss spending an additional $150,000 for an outside contractor to remove roadside debris from the April 19 storms that blew through the county. The board already had approved $200,000 for the project, an issue that frustrated commissioners Charlie Harris and Homer Wright.

“We sit here and keep doing this, and I want to know why we’re going to keep coming up with more money,” Harris said. “We can keep spending money on this debris, but we’ve got a county truck and county employees who could be doing this … $200,000 is a lot of money, and it’s the people’s money.”

Commissioners first approved spending $100,000 from the rainy day fund to assist with debris removal after storms with 90 mph winds left a swath of destruction and debris across the county on April 19. The first allocation allowed the contractor, who is compensated per cubic yard of debris removed, to work for eight days.

On May 27, commissioners approved another $100,000 for the contractor, allocating $50,000 from the lodging tax rainy day fund and $50,000 from the road and bridge fund.

The allocations were made with the expectation that Pike County would receive a FEMA disaster declaration and be eligible for federal reimbursement on expenditures related to storm cleanup and repair. However, the declaration once anticipated in early May could still be several months away.

“Hindsight is 2020,” said District 4 Commission Chad Copeland. When commissioners approved the first $100,000, “we expected within two to three weeks to have a FEMA declaration and to be able to get the funds to clean up the remainder of the debris.”

The same thing happened with the second allocation, when commissioners hoped they were within weeks of receiving the declaration. “But we can’t go back, so we’re here today.

District 6 Commissioner Russell Johnson, who made the motion to allocate an additional $150,000 for the cleanup, said the county has a responsibility to remove the debris and provide safe roadways for residents. “If something like this isn’t what this rainy day fund is for, then I don’t know what is,” he said.

Harris raised concerns that commissioners were seeking the additional funding in a misguided attempt to avoid potential liability issues, citing earlier discussions of a wreck that took place on a county roadway recently when a vehicle clipped debris left behind from the storms.

“McCluretown Road has pot holes and if they have a wreck out there because of the potholes, it’s the same lawsuit,” said Homer Wright, District 1.

County attorney Allen Jones said the county has a duty to provide safe roads and bridges to its residents. And while storms are considered an act of God, “you also have a reasonable amount of time to get things off the right of way,” he said. “It’s been two months and it would be pretty hard to argue you haven’t had time to get things done .”

County engineer Russell Oliver said the contractors were about 70 percent complete with the debris removal. “The vast majority of debris on paved roads has been removed,” he said. And while the county does have a work crew and truck, it cannot remove the debris as quickly as the contractor with specialized equipment.

“One more round with the contract we’ve had will get us a lot closer, Oliver said.

Commission Chairman Robin Sullivan stressed that the commission would not likely consider additional funding for the contractor. “You’re pretty confident that you can finish with county forces? Because we can’t come back to this again.”

Copeland said after the meeting that discussions had veered from the original purpose of the called sessions. “I don’t know how we got off on liability,” he said. “This was supposed to be a meeting about responsibility – the responsibility to clean up after the storm.”