$4 million could do a lot more good

It’s not often that our little slice of Maryland makes national news, but Crisfield attorney John Phoebus struck a chord by promoting the latest White House petition. The petition, titled “Cancel the President’s vacation and send the $4 million it will cost to Somerset County, Maryland for disaster relief” reads as follows:

On December 3, 2012, President Obama denied the request of Governor O’Malley and the entire Maryland congressional delegation to award Individual Assistance to Somerset County, Maryland to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

Somerset County is Maryland’s poorest county. The towns of Crisfield, Fairmount, and Deal Island were devastated by the hurricane, with flood waters causing widespread damage. These poor, working waterfront communities were already fragile from the decline of the seafood industry. Super Storm Sandy left them with no where to turn except FEMA for assistance.

For the $4 million it will cost taxpayers for the President to vacation in Hawaii, we could rebuild Somerset County. The President should stay home and send our tax money to Somerset County to rebuild.

Okay, insofar as the main compare and contrast point I agree wholeheartedly; in fact, by making national news Phoebus is bringing attention to a part of the country arguably devastated as much as those areas around the New York City metroplex where news outlets like the Weather Channel camped out and breathlessly followed the story of devastation. Somerset County is much farther off the beaten track and not a lot of people live there, so no one cared. Even when a grocery store which had operated 64 years was shut down as a result of the storm, it attracted little notice.

But the question is also one of assuming it’s the federal government’s job to step in and bail us out. In all honesty, if someone handed a $4 million check to the residents of Crisfield, how would they divvy the money out? Furthermore, how quickly do you think the complaints would come that so-and-so was getting benefits while we weren’t? Or that the money wasn’t being spent properly – remember those debit cards handed out after Katrina? I suspect the government learned an expensive lesson.

Needless to say, in the great scheme of government spending $4 million is a rounding error. If you figure the number of people affected it would likely only be about $1,000 each, if that. That’s why I have to question Phoebus’s assertion that it would be enough to “rebuild Somerset County.”  He correctly points out that the damage has long since been done since the seafood industry left, and $4 million won’t fix that either. Obviously it’s a completely symbolic gesture.

So far 3,440 have signed the petition, with a threshold of 25,000 to become eligible for a White House response. It’s likely that getting to 25,000 will take longer than the time remaining before Barack Obama steps onto Air Force One and jets off to Hawaii for the holidays, so the question may become moot.

I suspect what may happen this year is that certain one-time tax provisions will be made for victims of Sandy and millions will be doled out throughout the affected area to help particular victims. Somerset County won’t get rich from that, but I think that’s about the best they’ll be able to expect.