County could owe $10 million on streambank rehab


By David Avitabile

Schoharie County taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $10 million of the controversial streambank rehabilitation project.
In a letter obtained by the Times-Journal, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency that was supposed to fund the work on the four streams, has notified county officials that any work done to the Little Schoharie and Line creeks after March 27 will not be eligible for reimbursement.
The letter, addressed to Earl VanWormer, the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, was titled, "Cease and desist order for NRCS agreement" for the Little Schoharie and Line Creek.
"I think it means they pulled the funding," responded Fulton Supervisor Phil Skowfoe when asked about the letter."
The county, according to his records, has paid out more than $21.4 million from 2013 to 2016 and has been reimbursed about $5.6 million.
"We could lose all that, plus," he added. He guessed that $10 to $15 million could be in jeopardy.
"I would think it's in jeopardy," he said about the project.
Treasurer and flood recovery coordinator Bill Cherry said county taxpayers may have to pay millions for a project that was originally not to have any local match.
"There is a real possibility that a $24 million project that was sold to the public as having no local share, could easily be $30 million or more, and there is a real possibility that the taxpayers of Schoharie County could be on the hook for $15 to $20 million."
NRCS owes the county, continued Mr. Cherry, millions of dollars from work done in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
NRCS was supposed to reimburse the county for "legitimate and authorized" expenditures within 10 days.
The fact that those bills have not been paid for several years is a "very, very bad sign," Mr. Cherry said.
"There is a good chance the county may never get that money back."
In addition, he added, there is no evidence that NRCS may reverse its decisions on the bills already submitted "or a green light to spend money which the county continues to do."
According to Mr. Cherry, the Board of Supervisors has not provided the Treasurer's Office with copies of any recent correspondence from NRCS, but "if NRCS has notified the board that they are not going to reimburse Schoharie County for the tens of millions of dollars already spent on this ill-conceived boondoggle, then this county is in very serious financial trouble."
County Administrator Steve Wilson said Monday afternoon that supervisors are aware of the letter, but he does not see the same dark clouds as Mr. Skowfoe and Mr. Cherry observe about the project.
NRCS, according to Mr. Wilson, is restructuring the contract for projects throughout the country, changing many from local to national coverage.
Parts of the project, he explained, would be divided up into numerous segments.
The letter, he added, "certainly does not" mean that the project is in jeopardy or that the county will be on the hook for millions in unfunded bills.
NRCS officials have consistently said that "they are committed to the project," Mr. Wilson added.
"If they are walking away from the project, they are not telling us that."
He did admit, "there's lot of work to be done."
County officials, he added, have been "told, 'If you get it right, you will be reimbursed.'"
He certainly expects that to happen, he added.
The letter came to light after last Tuesday's flood committee meeting, Mr. Wilson said.
At that meeting, members went into a 45-minute closed door executive session to discuss contracts with the firm that was originally hired to oversee the streambank project as well as NRCS, after a recommendation from Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Skowfoe, who was against going into executive session, said the full board may need a special meeting if the county has to "reapply for money."
Though it has been promised, Mr. Skowfoe does not expect much work to be done on the project on the Little Schoharie and Line Creek this year.
"I find it hard to believe we'll have a shovel in the ground this year."
He said he has been told that the funding could be "fast tracked," but, "I've never seen government move that fast."
The longer the project goes, the more it will cost, he added.
"You can't just keep stretching it out because wages increase," he noted.
Efforts to reach an NRCS representative were unsuccessful.