Price tag for fire a cause for concern

As San Bruno residents sift through the ashes of homes destroyed by a massive gas line explosion, public agencies are grappling with how to assess the damage and pay for the cost of the massive response.

County officials are in the early stages of tabulating the expended resources and determining how they might be reimbursed for the response to the Sept. 9 disaster that killed at least four people and devastated a neighborhood, said Deputy County Manager Mary McMillan.

“No, we won’t get reimbursed fully and we know that, but you go do what you do because it’s the right thing to go do it,” McMillan said.

The county, the city of San Bruno and the state have all made emergency declarations, but officials are still waiting to hear whether the federal government will make a major disaster declaration, which would release another source of funds to local agencies that faced financial troubles even before the disaster.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for the declaration, which is dependent on whether the damage meets a certain level, said state Sen. Leland Yee, who urged the governor to send the letter.

“If the president signs off on that, then a lot of the costs that we have — including paying for fighting the fire — the feds would end up picking up the tab for that,” Yee said.

The localities that responded with hundreds of workers — from East Palo Alto police officers to mental health workers from the county — will have to individually tabulate what they’ve spent.

McMillan couldn’t give figures for the number of employees involved or the cost, except to say it’s in the millions of dollars. She expects the county will have a better sense next week of the resources it has used.

Those whose homes were  destroyed or damaged can apply for lowered property taxes. Yee has proposed a bill to provide state funds to local agencies to backfill any tax drops, which could especially impact schools.

Earlier this week, officials roughly estimated the damage at $31 million for private property, including dozens of homes that were damaged, and $6.6 million for public infrastructure, though an operations center spokesperson said they were still working to revise those figures.

The extra costs come as the county is already dealing with a roughly $100 million deficit in its $1.7 billion budget, due in large part to rising employee costs and declines in tax revenues in the recession. San Bruno has dealt with its own budget troubles, cutting eight-full time positions this year to help close a $1.9 million deficit.

To avoid having the disaster expenses lead to more layoffs or social services cuts, Yee said he’s encouraging localities to be as accurate as possible when tallying costs so they can get the maximum reimbursement.

“The dollars that are set aside for these emergencies are exactly for this particular purpose,” Yee said.

Damage toll

The latest numbers for private property damage in the Glenview neighborhood:

37: Homes destroyed
16: Homes with major damage
32: Homes with minor damage
292: Homes with no damage

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

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