Cunningham: FEMA Money Intended for Boardwalk, No Free Lunch for East Lyme Taxpayers

One of the most important lessons in an introductory economics class is the idea that there is no such thing as a free lunch. It was with interest, then, that I read reports which suggested East Lyme was in the process of receiving just such a free lunch in the form of $1.73 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A headline described these funds as a “windfall.” They’ve also been described as a “reimbursement” for money spent to repair the damage from two hurricanes. The record shows that these are not accurate descriptions of this money, at least from the perspective of East Lyme voters.

Let’s rewind to an East Lyme town meeting on March 14, 2014. The official record describes the fifth item on the agenda, which passed, as follows:

Item #5 of the Call: Special Appropriation of up to $4,442,779 from proceeds related to legal settlement, insurance settlement and FEMA Funds from Capital Projects Fund 57 into an account entitled “Niantic Bay Boardwalk 2014” to fund betterment and repairs. Remaining funds to be used for maintenance and upkeep.

A lawsuit was settled over the faulty original design for $1.6M. Out of that money, there were some expenses in the amount of $130,000 that needed to be met. Therefore, the money that was left is $1,470,000. In addition, there is $1.7M from storm Irene and $1.1M from storm Sandy. There was also an additional STEAP grant given to the Town for $500,000 that will be also be used towards the project.

It is clear that voters intended to dedicate this $1.73 million of FEMA money to our beloved Niantic Bay Boardwalk.

Six years later, our first selectman, Mark Nickerson, is asking to take this money from the boardwalk and use it for a project he has been overselling to taxpayers for approximately two years. In this, as in so many things, he has not been forthcoming with taxpayers.

For example, this week Mr. Nickerson was slated to request, for a second time, $2.17 million of additional funding for renovations to a building the town recently purchased. But Mr. Nickerson has now tabled this request because he would like to use the $1.73 million of boardwalk money to cover this renovation cost. We’re left to conclude that $440,000 of the money Mr. Nickerson was so insistently requesting really wasn’t actually all that necessary. Otherwise how could $1.73 million cover a $2.17 million “requirement”?

Our boards of selectmen and finance should be honest in considering what this decision would mean. The boardwalk will be short changed so that a building can be renovated. Is this really what voters would want?

Our schools can’t afford to buy air filters which would protect students, teachers and staff from the coronavirus. Perhaps if we are pulling money out of the boardwalk that would be a preferred priority?

We should also understand that if this money is taken from the boardwalk we will face a future bill for maintenance and upkeep that we would not have faced otherwise. It is somewhat ironic that inadequate maintenance of another building, the current police station, is what caused the need to buy a new building in the first place.

There it is again: there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Brendan Cunningham
East Lyme, CT

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