By Stephen Winham, Guest Columnist
A Year After North Louisiana Flooded, seven Months after South Louisiana flooded, and while many are still trying to sort out their FEMA claims and other flood-related issues, we see the following headline about the much-touted “Restore Louisiana” program intended to bring additional aid the victims:
Louisiana scraps bids for flood recovery contract; governor’s office says redo shouldn’t cause delay [The Advocate, 3/18/2017]
The day before, we saw much the same reported in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report Daily Report PM.
Reading these reports and remembering that the first state program for flood victims, “Shelter at Home”, ended with decidedly mixed reviews, we might well ask what my headline does.
In addition to our governor, our congressional delegation has fought long and hard for the approximately $1.7 billion in federal support secured for our state’s “Restore Louisiana” program. And, the governor is seeking even more federal funding for the program, despite the fact no money has yet been distributed.
The Restore Louisiana Task Force was created by executive order of the governor on September 2, 2016, to provide the program’s framework. That was a good start, coming only 3 weeks after the south Louisiana Flood. This 21-member panel held its first meeting in mid-September and our congressional delegation was able to get a commitment of some $500 million right away, something many considered remarkable.
The U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in mid-October the imminent release of 88% of the first $500 million grant. About that same time, Hurricane Matthew struck other southeastern states, but that crisis was not expected to delay Louisiana’s grant. By late October it was announced the initial $438 million would come in the form of semi-flexible HUD grants to be used for housing and small business needs.
In late October, the task force delayed making recommendations due to infighting among the members on fair distribution of the first $438 million while the governor was still promising to go for a total of $4 billion. Basically, the members couldn’t decide who should get money first and how much they should get. Sound familiar? Surely politics was not at play here.
By the time Gov. Edwards went back to D. C. to beg for more money in early November (one of a total of 7 times he would do so), our congressional delegation was finding support difficult in light of the fact nothing had come of the initial $438 million to address purportedly emergency needs. U. S. Rep. Garrett Graves (R-Baton Rouge) was particularly vocal about this.
In mid-November, the task force came up with a plan for $405 million of the money with priority on needs of the poor, elderly and disabled. They correctly projected that jumping the many bureaucratic hurdles to implementation would likely require several months before the first dollar was actually used to repair or replace flood-damaged homes.
In early December, an additional $1.2 billion in funding began to make its way through Congress. The estimated flood damage in the state totaled $8.7 billion with damage to over 113,000 homes. The task force published an action plan for the initial aid to HUD to be submitted the first week of January 2017.
At the end of December HUD awarded the additional $1.2 billion, bringing the total to almost $1.7 billion available for the Restore Louisiana program. All the money came with bureaucratic strings attached. These strings were blamed for the continued delay.
In late January, the task force met to present a breakdown of how the money would be distributed. Many people questioned the fact that 19%, or $315 million, was allocated for administrative costs. Pat Forbes, director of the state office of Community Development said the 19% was a cap and that administrative costs would be kept as low as possible. He also pointed out that administrative costs associated with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were 45% of the total.
Now, consider that paragraph again. Are we to believe we are getting a bargain if administrative costs are only 19%. And, how can anybody justify administrative costs of 45% attributed to Hurricane Sandy?
In early March, the state awarded a contract for $250 million (about 15%) which was $65 million less than the second-place bidder (what a coincidence that this $315 million equaled the cap in the task force report). Then, the second-place bidder filed a protest claiming the winner did not have the commercial contractor’s license required by law. Other losing bidders were expected to follow suit. Oddly enough, the State Licensing Board for Contractors pointed out in its ruling that neither the first nor second place bidders had the required license at the time they made the bids. Imagine that.
The administration claims re-bidding will not further slow the program down because it will be possible to make a new award quickly.
A quote from the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report PM on March 17 by Rep. Graves:
“This is very disappointing news,” Graves says. “This will further delay the allocation of badly needed flood relief funds that we appropriated in September. It is impossible to explain to flood victims why $1.6 billion in recovery dollars are stuck in the bureaucracy, while homes remain gutted, moldy and uninsulated.”
I’m with Congressman Graves on this one. He has been rightly critical of the failure to implement this program for months. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it is utterly ridiculous to hold up funding for over a year for some people for an EMERGENCY from which they are still suffering. To say the people needing this assistance are long overdue is to grossly understate the situation.
We all deserve to know what will be done for the $250 million (or more) in the management contract – What, exactly, is the contractor going to do and at what hourly and other rates? Have we considered it might be cheaper for the state to do this, even if it had to hire people on a temporary basis? The state already has at least some of the things in place the contractor may charge for based on responses to the original RFP. I realize we have all been led to believe the state is incapable of doing anything cheaper than the private sector, but I’ve not seen enough evidence to convince me.
Examining the records of the task force shows it never actually predicted the money would start to flow to the people who need it before about now. I honestly thought the timeline was much shorter and that we were willing to pay the exorbitant costs of the management contract because we needed the swiftest action possible. I certainly did not realize nothing was going to happen before now, so I clearly was not paying enough attention. I have to believe I was not alone.
Since we are now going to start over with the award of the contract, I sincerely hope somebody will look very closely at the proposals to ensure we are paying a fair price for what we will be getting. We’ve already wasted this much time on bureaucratic B. S. so why not spend at least a few days more before rushing into another contract. Meeting HUD requirements would seem to be the current major holdup, so it’s not like taking a little more time now would be wasted and it could result in more money for those in need.
Note: I must credit the excellent reports in The ADVOCATE by Elizabeth Crisp and Mark Ballard and in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report by Stephanie Riegel upon which I based most of my research for this column.