If a sinkhole destroys your home, the federal government may pay more to knock it down than it will pay you to get back on your feet.
That’s the reality confronting Jamin and Belinda Sell of Whitehall Township.
They’ve been seeking help for nearly a year since a series of sinkholes in September and October left their home uninhabitable. The sinkholes followed Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, and the Sells tried to tap into those disaster relief programs.
They got about $20,500, but only after fighting through multiple rejections, with the help of federal lawmakers and the Watchdog. Whitehall will be getting more than twice that much from Uncle Sam, $50,000, to demolish the abandoned home and fill the sinkholes in the name of public safety and blight prevention.
Am I the only one who questions that funding disparity?
“They can get it, but yet we can barely get help,” Jamin Sell told me last week.
The Sells don’t begrudge Whitehall for applying for aid to deal with the problem. The demolition would be a strain on its budget, too, and they understand the township has responsibilities to the broader neighborhood.
“I understand why they have to do what they have to do,” Sell said.
But where’s the money for the victims? The Sells have been bunking with family and have exhausted their life savings, and they couldn’t even get the maximum amount of disaster relief, $30,500.
“It’s frustrating,” Jamin Sell said. “We’ve just about all but given up.”
He said the couple still is trying to work with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s office to get more assistance, but the outlook isn’t promising.
Casey’s office is doing what it can, spokesman John Rizzo told me.
“Since 2011, Sen. Casey’s office has weighed in on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Sell with federal agencies, their insurance company, and their lender in order to assist them in their attempt to overcome this terrible tragedy and to be fairly compensated,” Rizzo said. “Our office will continue to work with the Sells, should additional resources become available.”
The Sells are talking to an attorney about their options and are trying to work with their bank to relieve them of the mortgage, which they have been paying so their credit isn’t wrecked, too. On top of it all, Belinda Sell is being treated for breast cancer.
The family didn’t have sinkhole insurance, so their insurer wouldn’t cover the damage. After the first sinkhole, they spent $55,000 trying to repair the damage, only to see the home wrecked again when more sinkholes opened. The estimate to fix that damage and fill the voids in the earth is more than they paid for the house.
Whitehall’s grant application hints at the frustration the Sells have encountered in trying to get help themselves. It notes that applying for disaster aid was “a slow and not very fruitful process.”
“Unfortunately, all funding that has been made available to the owner involves payback, which he cannot afford at this time,” the application says. “All requests for funding have been channeled through FEMA, and yet this ‘disaster’ does not fit neatly into any of the fundable categories under FEMA.”
The federal aid the Sells received came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which handles disaster relief. The aid Whitehall is scheduled to receive is from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That money is from a larger pot that HUD provides to Lehigh County to distribute as it sees fit to other governments and organizations through block grants. The township applied to the county, and the county granted its request.
This is the first time Lehigh County has used its federal money for a project like this, said Cindy McDonnell Feinberg, the county’s director of community and economic development.
Even the township, though, didn’t get all that it sought. It requested $81,000. It estimates the demolition and securing of the property will cost $90,000. I wasn’t able to reach Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza for more details. Its application says it hopes to do the work next year. It won’t get the money until then.
I understand there are different funding streams within the government, and each has its own criteria. But the net result is frustrating.
“It just seems like everybody is saying, ‘It’s sad, but it’s your problem,'” Jamin Sell said.
Meanwhile, the federal government continues to waste billions of dollars by providing inefficient and duplicate services, as identified by the Government Accountability Office and previously reported by the Watchdog.
And it has dough to blow on lavish employee trips to Las Vegas, where the General Services Administration spent nearly $1 million hosting a conference and enjoying $58 lunches and $49 breakfasts.
As I’ve said before and surely will say again, that’s your government, folks.