Wolf Administration Appeals Denial of Disaster Declaration Request for Northeast Pa. Winter Storm

June 02, 2017

Harrisburg, PA – Governor Tom Wolf today announced that he has appealed the Trump Administration’s denial of his request for a federal disaster declaration to help offset the financial burden of a record-breaking snowstorm that crippled much of the northeastern part of the state in March.

“The financial impact of this storm will impact both day-to-day and emergency operations in these communities for months to come,” said Governor Wolf. “Without federal assistance, they very well may be forced to cut funding for vital services their citizens need.”

In his letter, Governor Wolf cited: decreased revenues at the state and county levels; hazardous road conditions due to record or near-record snowfalls; excessive costs for plowing, hauling and disposing the crippling amounts of snow from the storm; major challenges to first responders in supporting basic and event-related emergency services as well as disaster response needs at the municipal and county level; and mobilization of a variety of local and volunteer resources to address public safety and emergency needs of citizens.

On May 2, Governor Wolf requested a federal disaster declaration to provide federal funding to local, county and state governments, as well as certain eligible non-profits in Bradford, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Northumberland, Pike, Wayne and Montour counties through the Public Assistance program. The program provides reimbursement of up to 75% of the costs incurred on eligible expenses for the eligible 48-hour time period. The request was denied on May 11.

To view the letter in its entirety, click here (Scribd). View a PDF version here.

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Mr. President,

Under the provisions of Section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 5121-5207 (Stafford Act), and implemented by 44 CFR § 206.36 and pursuant to 44 CFR § 206.46(a), the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (the Commonwealth) appeals the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) decision dated May 11, 2017 that denied public assistance, including snow assistance to Bradford, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Montour, Northumberland, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming Counties, as well as Hazard Mitigation for the affected counties.

On May 2, 2017, the Commonwealth requested that a major disaster be declared for Bradford, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Montour, Northumberland, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming Counties because of Winter Storm Stella, a severe winter storm that impacted the Commonwealth during the period of March 13, through March 16, 2017.  On March 13, 2017, I declared a disaster emergency throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania due to the impending effects of the severe snow event.  As part of this proclamation, I directed that appropriate response action be taken, and that the Commonwealth’s emergency operations plan be executed.  In addition, I determined that the disaster was of such severity and magnitude that effective response was beyond the capabilities of the Commonwealth, and requested supplemental federal assistance.

The severe winter storm caused significant financial impacts to affected local jurisdictions.  The Commonwealth has worked to provide short-term assistance to supplement the local recovery efforts.  However, federal assistance made available under a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration is necessary to meet the long-term recovery needs of this disaster.

The Commonwealth expects to end its current Fiscal Year 2016-2017 having collected at least $1.4 billion less revenue than was anticipated upon budget enactment in July 2016.  In context, this means that for April 2017 alone:

  • Pennsylvania collected $537.1 million, or 13.5 percent less General Fund revenue than what was anticipated.
  • Sales tax receipts were $58.3 million below estimate.
  • Personal income tax revenue was $181.5 million below estimate.
  • Corporation tax revenue was $227.4 below estimate.
  • Inheritance tax revenue was $8 million below estimate.
  • Realty transfer tax revenue was $9.7 million below estimate.
  • Non-tax revenue totaled $215.1 million for the month, $71.8 million below estimate.

In addition, the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2016-2017 year-to-date collections are as follows:

  • General fund collections are $1.2 billion, or 4.5 percent, below estimate.
  • Sales tax collections are $190 million, or 2.3 percent less than anticipated.
  • Personal income tax collections are $10.5 billion, which is $324.7 million, or 3 percent below estimate.
  • Corporation tax collections total $3.9 billion, which is $577.4 million, or 12.8 percent below estimate.
  • Inheritance tax revenue is $22.6 million, or 2.9 percent below estimate.
  • Realty transfer tax is $67.8 million, or 15.2 percent less than anticipated.
  • Non-tax revenue totaled $553.7 million, which is $44.5 million, or 7.4 percent below estimate.
  • Motor license fund collections are 700,000 below estimate.

The effect of this shortfall in Fiscal Year 2016-2017 revenues means that the Commonwealth is facing a $4.0 to $4.5 billion deficit in its Fiscal Year 2017-2018.  The reality of this massive structural budget deficit is supported by Standard and Poor’s, an independent rating agency.

The Commonwealth is working diligently and responsibly to respond to its considerable budgetary shortfall in Fiscal Year 2016-2017, and to fix its Fiscal Year 2017-2018 structural deficit.  Specifically, in my Fiscal Year 2017-2018 budget, I have proposed $2 billion in cuts and savings that rely on reforming government, eliminating waste, and modernizing and improving state services for customers by getting rid of red tape and bureaucracy, but not slashing important programs.  While my proposed budget would put the Commonwealth back on a path to its own long-term financial stability, the Commonwealth simply does not have the financial resources to alleviate the substantial damages that the severe winter storm imposed on our similarly financially distressed counties and cities.

For example, the City of Wilkes-Barre (the City), located in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, was decimated financially by the severe winter storm.  It was the largest snow storm ever endured by the City, overwhelming first responders and public works crews.  The City responsibly budgeted $370,000 for winter storm costs, but it could not have foreseen a storm the size of Winter Storm Stella.  The resulting snow had to be removed from 127 miles of City streets, and moved to remote locations.  This resulted in over $1,000,000 in fixed costs; not including revenue collections lost from earned income taxes, business privilege taxes, and parking due to the inability to report to work and access the City.  Without supplemental assistance, the City will be unable to adequately sustain, protect, respond to and recover from disaster emergencies.

The conditions of this severe winter storm event are like those that the Commonwealth experienced in January of 2016 in which a federal major disaster declaration was granted.  Winter Storm Stella was rated Category 3, or major, on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS) released by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The NESIS ranks high-impact Northeast winter storms by using population and snowfall amounts.  NESIS also looks at the size of the snowfield, which for this severe winter storm covered not only most of Pennsylvania, but most of the Northeast portion of the United States.  The scale ranges from 1-5 using a formula, and per NESIS factors, Stella fell well within the Category 3 criteria.  This was the first storm since 2015 to be rated Category 3.

In addition to generating record or near-record levels of snowfall throughout a large portion of the Commonwealth, the severe winter storm negatively impacted road conditions, accessibility and mobility. These conditions provided major challenges to the public safety community in supporting basic and event-related emergency services as well as disaster response needs at the municipal and county levels.  The conditions also created major public safety situations in many areas of the Commonwealth ranging from traffic accidents to snow removal deaths.

The Commonwealth and local governments in the nine-county region incurred excessive costs for plowing, hauling and disposing the crippling amounts of snow from this severe winter storm.  Local snow removal budgets were depleted, and forced municipalities into deficit spending.  Local affected jurisdictions are struggling with this unanticipated financial impact, forcing cuts to other critical services to make up the deficits.  The Commonwealth and the affected local governments maintained snow removal operations as budgets zeroed out because of the public safety impacts resulting from the snow.  Regardless of costs, local governments and state agencies continued to operate to minimize impacts to public health and safety, and ensure the quickest possible recovery.

Recovery efforts required the mobilization and deployment of a variety of local, state, volunteer and private resources to address emergency needs and public safety issues associated with the severe winter storm.  As previously stated, portions of the Commonwealth’s major transportation corridors were closed for extended periods of time, placing additional demands on other segments of the system.  Basic access along the Commonwealth’s transportation system had to be maintained to ensure continuity of essential emergency services and resource support to the required areas.

In conclusion, I submit that the severe winter storm was of such severity and magnitude that effective response was beyond the capabilities of the Commonwealth and the local affected governments, and that supplemental federal assistance is necessary.  The Commonwealth has provided additional supporting information that substantiates that the magnitude of damages and economic impact to the state and affected local governments, far exceeds combined capabilities.  Accordingly, FEMA’s denial of the Commonwealth’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration should be reversed, and Bradford, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Montour, Northumberland, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming Counties should be approved for public assistance, including snow assistance and hazard mitigation.

Finally, I have designated Mr. Jeffrey Thomas (Mr. Thomas) as the State Coordinating Officer for this request.  Mr. Thomas can be reached at 717-651-2028 or jethomas@pa.gov, and will work with FEMA to provide further information as needed on my behalf.

Respectfully,

TOM WOLF

Governor

6.2.17 Wolf Administration Appeals Denial of Disaster Declaration by Governor Tom Wolf on Scribd

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