Ice jam aid denied, Portland’s persistence prompts policy change

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PORTLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — State emergency management officials will change the way financial aid requests are processed after Portland’s city manager maintained it was wrong that the city was denied relief last year.

It turns out that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office agrees with the city.

February will mark two years since an ice jam along the Grand River sent water into homes and businesses.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer responded by declaring a state of emergency for the area, but the emergency management division of Michigan State Police later decided the city didn’t qualify for state aid provided through the state’s Emergency Management Act. 

“This was so glaringly apparent that this step that they were applying just wasn’t supported by the law,” Portland City Manager Tutt Gorman told News 8 this week. 

In challenging the denial, Gorman and the Michigan Municipal League argued the agency was misinterpreting eligibility requirements.

Gorman said MSP determined any release of funding would first need the governor’s approval, separate from the emergency declaration, before considering the city’s application. 

Gorman shared a flow chart with News 8 showing the steps MSP said needed to happen but never did in 2019.

Despite having gone through the financial relief process after a tornado ripped through the city in 2015, neither Gorman nor the MML had ever seen those steps as a requirement.

“It was the first instance we’ve run across where the governor declared a disaster for a community and that community was then denied access to disaster relief dollars,” MML Director of State and Federal Affairs Chris Hackbarth told News 8. “This was a really odd situation and because of the way the department went about the denial, it caused the city of Portland and the league to really take a deeper dive into the criteria MSP was using and the rationale for their denial.”

Portland was made whole thanks to legislative appropriations approved earlier this year, which Gorman pursued after hitting a dead end with MSP.

Then a few weeks ago, the city manager said MSP informed him the process will change after his persistence in questioning the denial prompted a review from the AG’s Office.

Both MSP and the AG cited attorney-client privilege when News 8 asked for comment, but didn’t dispute the information provided by Gorman and Hackbarth. 

“The outcome, legally speaking, is not a surprise,” Gorman said. “It’s great to hear. Not only for the city of Portland, but all the communities across the state, when they go through some of the worst situations they’re confronted with, to have a clear understanding of what the process is.”

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