Buffalo and Erie County are paying top dollar to clear downed tree limbs and other debris from the October snowstorm -- as much as 50 to 85 percent higher than some suburban communities, a Buffalo News analysis found.
Buffalo's paying more, in part, because the city skipped public bidding. City leaders wanted the work done quickly to eliminate safety hazards and prevent financial losses from the city's being shut down.
"If I waited two days, would I have gotten a better price? Maybe. But my job was to get it off the street," said Joseph N. Giambra, Buffalo's public works commissioner. "To shut down the city one day costs millions of dollars."
Erie County, meanwhile, paid more for debris removal because County Executive Joel A. Giambra insisted on hiring only local firms. But in the end, several local companies the county hired subcontracted the work to out-of-state companies.
"It was important to Joel that we keep as much of it local as we could, that we keep it in the Western New York economy," said County Purchasing Director Joseph Gervase.
The cost to remove, grind and haul debris away ranges from $12.40 a cubic yard in the Town of Tonawanda and $12.74 in Amherst to $22.87, on average, a cubic yard in Buffalo and $20.15, on average, in Erie County.
It's too early to know the total cost of removing the downed trees and broken limbs from the Oct. 12-13 storm, but with several million cubic yards of debris expected to be picked up, the cost could exceed $100 million, according to local government estimates. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 75 percent of municipal cleanup costs, with the state government covering the rest.
City and county officials say they are permitted to forgo bidding rules during emergencies and were careful to award contracts based on federal guidelines -- sometimes consulting with FEMA -- to ensure their spending qualifies for federal and state reimbursements.
All bills submitted to FEMA will be reviewed to ensure costs are "reasonable and justified," said FEMA spokeswoman Janet Lowe.
She wouldn't say whether Buffalo's no-bid contracts or Erie County's decision to award contracts only to local vendors poses a problem.
"We ask that they solicit bids, evaluate offers and award contracts in compliance with all the regulations that they are subject to," Lowe said. "There have been cases in other disasters where FEMA did not find a cost eligible. FEMA will do a careful review of every situation."
The cost of clearing debris in cities, such as Buffalo, is sometimes more expensive because densely developed areas can be more difficult to clean, the agency official said.
>Speed and economy
The News also found that some communities, such as the Town of Tonawanda, achieved speed and economy.
The town initially used county contractors to help get much of its debris cleared promptly, then hired its own contractor through a competitively bid contract to finish the job.
"We have the responsibility as elected officials to make sure the tax dollars -- whether federal, state or local -- are being used in the most efficient manner possible," Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Ronald H. Moline said.
In Amherst, the town supervisor held a similar view about controlling costs -- even with the town's being reimbursed.
"It's all the same tax money," said Supervisor Satish B. Mohan. "Whether it's state or federal, I treat it as our own. FEMA money is not coming from the sky."
Amherst not only got lower hauling costs than Buffalo and Erie County, but also negotiated a lower price to remove dangling limbs from trees.
The Alabama company Amherst hired wanted $194 per tree but agreed to $70. Buffalo, meanwhile, pays $140 to one company and $145 to another. Erie County pays $90.
Amherst, however, waited longer to bring in outside contractors than other communities, with the first trucks arriving eight days after the storm. While the town got a good price, schools remained closed longer than those in other communities, and large piles of debris remained curbside through Halloween, raising safety issues.
Mohan, a university professor serving his first term in public office, acknowledged being unfamiliar with emergency operations when the storm hit and wasn't aware of federal government reimbursement rules. Mohan also said he hoped the county would help the town, but the help never arrived.
County officials said they offered help to Amherst, as they did all communities, but Amherst, unlike most suburbs, didn't accept their offer.
After the slow start, however, the cleanup is progressing well.
"This is getting cleaned up quick," said John R. Carter, with Carter Trucking & Backhoe Service, a Tennessee company helping with the cleanup. "This is well-organized."
>Area firms upset
On a recent day, a claw truck driver from Sarasota, Fla., roamed streets in the First Ward and Valley neighborhoods of Buffalo, looking for branches stacked at curbside.
Sam Crosen, a subcontractor working for a firm Buffalo hired, can put up to 40 cubic yards of debris into his truck. He hauls four to six loads a day to a temporary disposal site less than a mile away off South Park Avenue.
The debris is then ground up before being taken to a permanent disposal site in Rochester. Total cost: $22.75 per cubic yard.
On that same day, a truck from Lockport-based Walck Brothers Agricultural Services working for Erie County picked up debris on Maple Road in Amherst. The truck took 31 cubic yards of debris to a temporary site Erie County set up in Clarence, where it was ground before being hauled to Bethlehem Steel, where the contractor disposed of it. Total cost: $20.15, on average, per cubic yard.
Meanwhile, the company working for Amherst, DRC Emergency Services of Mobile, Ala., has hired subcontractors to pick up debris and haul the loads to the Lafarge North America quarry in Lockport. There, the debris is ground up and disposed of by the contractor. Total cost: $12.74 per cubic yard.
And in the Town of Tonawanda, a different Alabama company, D&J Enterprises, hauled storm debris to a site on East Park Drive, where it is being ground up and then used to form a cover to close a town landfill a short distance away. Total cost: $12.40 per cubic yard.
With the exception of haulers working under the county contract, virtually all this federal and state money will go to out-of-state companies, which upsets local businesses.
"More should have stayed here," said David Roetzer, with Amherst Paving. "Erie County is a depressed area. We need the money here badly. Local contractors should have had more of a chance."
He appreciates what Giambra did for local firms.
"If not for Joel, most of us would be sitting on the bench. Joel has made certain that all the work that he is responsible for is going to local contractors," Roetzer said.
"It's really, really sad that I [as an Amherst resident] have to pay taxes in Amherst, and they let the money go to out-of-town contractors," he added.
>'Locals not equipped'
In Buffalo, the emphasis was on a quick cleanup.
Following a storm, FEMA allows local governments, for 70 hours, to hire outside contractors on an emergency basis, without formal contracts. Buffalo did that.
Meanwhile, Joseph Giambra heard from out-of-state companies ready to deploy big trucks with claws to Buffalo to pick up tree branches. He met with two and signed contracts with both three days after the storm.
"The locals were not equipped," he said.
The federal government had not yet promised to cover cleanup costs at that point. But based on his decades-long career in City Hall, the public works commissioner was confidant the city would be reimbursed.
Giambra makes no apologies for the higher costs Buffalo is paying. The city, he said, was cleaned up well before some suburban communities. Also, he said, cleanup work is likely to cost more in the city than the suburbs.
"Doing that work in the city is a lot different than in the suburbs, where there are no curbs, and trucks can pull up into the trees, and you don't have to schedule around alternative-side-of-the-street parking," he said.
>Digging up grass
In Erie County, Giambra, in an unusual move, announced on television the county needed contractors to help clear debris. Seventy-three submitted prices. Most came from out of state, including some with the lowest quotes.
In keeping with Giambra's goal to hire locally, out-of-state offers were ignored. Instead, officials calculated an average price quote and awarded contracts to 11 local companies, including the three that worked for the county during the initial 70-hour emergency period.
The basic pickup and hauling price was nearly 40 percent higher per cubic yard than what an out-of-state company working for Buffalo would have charged Erie County. Some local vendors are being paid more, and others less, than their price quotes. The 11 combined didn't have the crews or equipment needed. Some subcontracted to large out-of-state companies.
"Not a lot of [local] people have the proper equipment to clean up this stuff," said Erik Boldt of Boldt's Evergreen Farm of Orchard Park, which received a county contract.
Boldt subcontracted with a company he's familiar with from his time working in Florida.
The Florida company sent 120 trucks and between 200 and 300 workers. About 50 workers are still here.
As soon as the storm ended, the Town of Tonawanda was among those signing on with Erie County. The crews worked well, but some were digging up grass because their equipment wasn't designed to pick up downed branches. The town decided to complete the cleanup with an outside contractor. The town bid the work and awarded a contract to an Alabama company.
"None of the locals had the big trucks," said Robert Morris, a town employee overseeing the work.
Amherst also bid out the work and signed a contract Oct. 20 with DRC Emergency Services. It was the first outside contractor the town brought in for the cleanup. Amherst encouraged DRC to hire local companies to assist.
Roetzer, with Amherst Paving, said he was contacted by DRC. But DRC, which was getting $12.74 per cubic yard from Amherst, offered him half that.
"They only offered $6.25," Roetzer said. His company, he said, couldn't afford to do the job for that amount.e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com