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Peabody revives plea for aid to cure its chronic flooding

With Governor Mitt Romney, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, US Senator John Kerry, and US Representative John Tierney touring flood-stricken Peabody Square last week, there has been plenty of sympathy for the water-drenched city. But even after last weekend's storms brought 4 feet of water to the steps of City Hall, there is no certainty that the downtown's chronic flooding problems will be fixed soon.

For the last three years, the city has pitched a plan to state and federal officials that would reduce the flooding, which is tied to the convergence of two brooks under Peabody Square. It calls for installing new water culverts underground and widening the brooks to accommodate the runoff from heavy rains. The plan, which carries a price tag of between $16 million and $20 million, was rejected in September 2004 by Romney, who vetoed a $5.7 million grant that had been approved by the Legislature. And last year, both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers rejected Peabody's applications for funding.

The city now is pushing two funding plans that would require state and federal funds. Both proposals have the support of the governor, said administration spokesman Felix Browne.

''I think that finally the decision makers understand the magnitude of the problem," said Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti. ''They understand finally the impact it's had because they've seen it for themselves. They understand that this can be fixed, and I think they understand very, very clearly the harm that's being done to the city of Peabody."

He estimated that 200 downtown businesses had been affected by the latest flood. According to Bonfanti, last weekend's flood and its recent predecessors, in 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2004, have cost Peabody at least $130 million in repair costs and ''lost economic opportunity."

The first proposal calls for $20 million in subsidies, with FEMA funding $15 million of the project and the state picking up the remaining $5 million. If FEMA agrees to the project, the state could use $5 million from supplemental operating funds within the state budget, Browne said.

The second option would cobble together several funding sources that would total $16.3 million. The formula would include $3 million from the city, $3.25 million from the state, and $10.05 million from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

This month, and before last week's rains, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and fellow Capitol Hill lawmakers Kerry and Tierney wrote a letter to FEMA's acting director, David Maurstad, in support of the city's request for federal money for the project. ''Peabody is in a strong position to expand its economy," the letter stated, ''but economic growth has constantly been stymied by recurrent flooding over the past 50 years."

Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency who works closely with communities that apply for FEMA grants, said the federal agency would decide by the end of the summer whether to fund the Peabody mitigation plan. ''Our expectation is that we're going to get it," he said.

He acknowledged, however, the proposal is similar to the one rejected by FEMA in past years.

In his office, overlooking the flood waters, Bonfanti said he was optimistic that elected state and federal officials would assist in obtaining funds for the three-year construction project. ''Now is the time, if they want to be leaders, they have to act like leaders and step up and do the job. That's what we need to do now."

In the time since Romney declined to give the city $5.7 million in 2004, Bonfanti and the governor have met to discuss ways to fund the project. In January of last year, Romney proposed $2 million for the project in his budget, but the money was cut by state legislators. Currently, $2 million toward the project is included in a Beacon Hill bill that could reach Romney's desk within the next few weeks, said Vicker DiGravio, a spokesman for a Peabody Democrat, state Senator Frederick E. Berry.

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com.

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