When sinkholes destroyed their home this time last year, Jamin and Belinda Sell of Whitehall Township lamented the limited amount of relief available for them.
They didn’t have sinkhole insurance. There was no federal disaster aid available from the tropical storm believed to have finished off their home, and they got only limited federal aid from the hurricane that seemed to have started the undermining.
A state lawmaker from the Scranton area heard similar tales in her community last year after summer downpours caused millions in flash flooding damage that didn’t trigger federal aid.
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, says Pennsylvania should help residents and local governments in those situations. She introduced legislation last month that would use liquor taxes to help disaster victims, which is the reason the tax was levied in the first place more than 70 years ago.
Baker said federal disaster assistance thresholds often are too tough to meet, leaving people without protection they deserve.
“Although judged to be ‘small’ by federal standards, these catastrophes wipe out homes, streets, bridges and municipal budgets,” Baker said in a statement when she introduced Senate Bill 1585. “The state should play a role in helping communities recover. The gaps are hurting people who experience tremendous loss but don’t meet disaster guidelines.”
Baker said 25 other states, including New York, have similar disaster assistance programs.
The legislation would provide grants of up to $10,000 for homeowners to repair or replace their primary residence, personal property or car; remove debris; and pay for temporary housing or funeral, medical or dental expenses.
Eligibility would be limited to households that earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines, or about $46,000 for a family of four. Households whose loss is covered by insurance would not be eligible.
Local governments also would be eligible for grants for uninsured losses. They could request up to 50 percent of the cost of debris removal or damage to public facilities such as bridges, roads, parks, water and sewage systems, power lines, utilities, buildings and equipment.
Businesses would not be eligible for grants.
The Sells likely would not have qualified for the proposed program, because of their income and because they were able to tap some federal relief money for one of the storms believed to have caused the sinkholes that destroyed their home.
Even if they had qualified, the $10,000 maximum grant would not have gone far in solving their problems, as the repair costs were estimated to be more than they paid for the home.
Jamin Sell told me the limited amount of the grants and income restrictions would preclude the proposed program from making an impact on many distressed homeowners.
“This is a good idea but stops way too short of doing any good,” he said.
He questioned why governments would qualify for uncapped amounts based on their dollar loss, while homeowners would have a hard cap.
“That is a slap in the face to the homeowner,” Sell told me.
The Watchdog isn’t a big fan of increasing the size of government by adding new programs. Government already is too big and too expensive. But considering how much money is wasted in Harrisburg playing politics and steering public money to private interests already, it doesn’t seem too much to set aside $16 million annually to help taxpayers in need, as long as those needs are verified.
While the available amounts may be small in terms of how much damage you can suffer from a weather disaster, the amounts would be helpful in some situations.
The legislation would return unspent money to the state treasury, so it could be spent elsewhere if not needed for disaster relief. It also would return some of the money collected through the Johnstown Flood Tax on liquor back to its intended purpose, to pay for natural disasters. The tax was levied in 1936 to fund Johnstown’s recovery, and when the flood damage was paid for, the tax was diverted to other uses.
That said, I also believe individuals and governments have the responsibility to maintain adequate insurance to cover themselves when the unthinkable happens, so they don’t have to rely on the government.
The Sells said they never were offered sinkhole insurance by their carrier and weren’t aware they could buy it. That process needs to change. All homeowners should be told all of their coverage options.
I’m not hopeful, though, that this legislation will become law any time soon. It was introduced so late in the current legislative session that lawmakers have little time to act, and it will expire if not passed by the end of the year.
If there isn’t near-unanimous support for this, and as of Wednesday only eight senators had signed on as sponsors, its chances are slim. And there are issues to consider beyond whether to divert liquor taxes.
At a hearing on the issue last September, state Emergency Management Director Glenn Cannon testified that a state disaster relief fund could cause conflicts with federal disaster relief.
He said the federal program is designed to help “when a disaster is beyond the resources of a state.” If Pennsylvania sets aside a large amount of its own money, Cannon said, the feds might require the state to spend that money before making federal money available. He testified that he wasn’t aware of that happening in other states, but said it’s a concern that should be considered.