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Additional help responding to a devastating season of drought and Western North Carolina wildfires could be on the way as lawmakers return to Raleigh next Tuesday for a special session originally called to pay for rising costs from Hurricane Matthew.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who has been in Raleigh this week working on the legislation, said he expects to see some relief targeted for western counties, but the size and scope of the legislation has yet to be established.
“The bill started out a month and a half ago only focused on issues in the east related to Hurricane Matthew, but now we’ve had the fires in the west,” McGrady said in an interview Monday with Carolina Public Press. “My expectation is that the bill will provide enough money to be a down payment toward addressing the damages that have occurred.”
McGrady said it’s still too early to fully assess the damages and costs of the fires, which have burned an more than 55,000 acres in Western North Carolina. The state forest service has been doing a good job tracking its costs, he said, but the impact of the fires on local governments is less clear right now. [Check current status of WNC wildfires, via the NC Forest Service, here.]
McGrady said initial aid offered in the special session is likely to be targeted at the cost of fighting the fires, with an additional aid package coming next year. Once the scope of federal aid is established and local governments in WNC have had time to assess impacts, the legislature could plan additional state assistance.
“Over the next weeks and months as the numbers get clearer, I would anticipate another bill early in the upcoming session that would take care of everything,” McGrady said.
Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe, said the legislature should make sure some help for the west to recover from drought and fires comes out of the session.
“It is definitely on my agenda that we roll in fire relief,” Ager said. He said he’s worried that local fire departments are tapping their reserves to cover the costs of keeping firefighters in the field. Help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is coming, Ager said, but time is tight.
“There’s only so many of these paychecks that the local fire departments can cover,” he said.
Gov. Pat McCrory called the special legislative session last week to initiate additional state programs and spending to assist 47 counties in eastern North Carolina hit by Hurricane Matthew in early October. Heavy flooding, which in some cases exceeded levels seen during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, has caused more than $2 billion in damages.
To cover its share of costs, the state has tapped into its two main emergency funds and state departments have burned through reserves. A recent analysis by the State Budget Office showed the state running low on emergency fund in mid-February of next year.
To tap into the state’s Savings Reserve Fund, the so-called rainy day fund, McCrory needs the approval of the legislature.
In addition to emergency funds already committed through the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Congress is considering an additional aid package as part of a stopgap spending measure being taken up this week.
The funding bill, which will keep the government operating for another six months, includes additional funding for disaster relief sought by North Carolina and other states hit by Hurricane Matthew.
On Nov. 14, McCory sent a request to Congress for more than $1 billion in aid.
McCrory’s official request for the session came amidst a contentious wind up of last month’s election, which ended on Monday, Dec. 5, when the governor conceded the election to Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Results of the Nov. 8 election had been delayed after a series of voting challenges by the governor’s supporters.
The challenges were winnowed down by local boards of elections over the past two weeks as counties began canvassing. The last challenge fell in Durham, which began a recount Saturday of early voting ballots and one key precinct. The recount, ordered by the State Board of Elections, showed only a handful of votes shifting with most in Cooper’s favor.
In an interview with Carolina Public Press Tuesday morning Ken Eudy, who is leading the Cooper transition team, said he expects representatives of the incoming administration to participate in discussions during next weeks’s special session. Cooper, he said, is expected to get his first official briefing by emergency management officials on the wildfires this week.
“We care what happens,” Eudy said. “The Cooper administration will own disaster recovery as of Jan. 1st.”
With his first budget presentation due in a little more than two months, Eudy said, the incoming governor and his team are eager to get to work.
“The sitting governor has told us privately and said publicly that he and his team will make the transition as smooth as possible,” he said. “We take him at his word on that.”
View McCrory’s concession video, which was released Monday, below: