April 26, 2018

In Pursuit of Our Fair Share:  Those Disaster Funds You’ve Been Hearing About

As we have following past storms, since Hurricane Harvey the City of Bellaire has been applying for grant funding from every disaster recovery and mitigation program potentially available to us.  Historically we’ve not had much success with grant applications, because we’ve been deemed too wealthy a demographic to qualify.  Nevertheless we continue to apply, and especially considering the widespread and unprecedented magnitude of the losses we sustained in Harvey, with nearly 30% of our homes having flooded, we firmly believe we ought to get our fair share of the funds we’ve been paying into all these years with our federal tax dollars.

The types of grants we’re seeking include both home elevation grants (the City acts as subapplicant on behalf of homeowners), and hazard mitigation grants that could be used to fund the ambitious public projects envisioned by our citizen Task Force.  There are various pots of money out there (several categories within each grant program), and the City is pursuing all for which we are eligible to apply.  Senior Bellaire officials regularly attend and participate in state disaster recovery workshops and conference calls, and are working closely with the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) and other agencies to identify sources of and apply for funding.

The first $500 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds have been distributed to the State of Texas, to be administered by TDEM.  It’s a highly competitive process with a multitude of local entities throughout the State’s hardest-hit areas submitting their proposed flood mitigation projects for consideration.  As of yesterday, TDEM has already received 290 individual notices of intent to apply (of which seven are now completed applications), in total representing more than $3 billion in proposed projects competing for the $500 million in available funding.  The number of applications is growing each day.

Seven of those notices of intent are ours, for local mitigation projects recommended by our Task Force, and we’re working with other entities (including the City of Houston, Harris County and Texas Department of Transportation) on notices of intent for regional mitigation projects.  Applications for this first round of HMGP funding will be received until June 30, and TDEM anticipates announcing the grant awards by August 30.  We’ll be paying close attention to this process throughout the summer as we work on developing our fiscal year 2019 budget and updating our Capital Improvement Plan with an eye toward future bond programs.  Should we receive one or more HMGP grants, we would still have to match 25 percent or more of the project cost.  I, along with other area mayors, am joining Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in a letter to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that the State of Texas cover the local match, as other states have done in similar situations.

Another source of federal funding is the first round allocation of $5.024 billion in Community Development Block Grants for disaster recovery (CDBG-DR) by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  These grants will support several relief efforts in impacted and distressed areas, including individual homeowner assistance programs, buyouts, local infrastructure improvements and planning studies.  The funds will be administered by the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which earlier this month published its State Action Plan for public comment before it is finalized and presented to HUD for approval.

On behalf of the City of Bellaire, and in coordination with the Houston-Galveston Area Council, I’ve submitted public comments urging GLO to revise the Plan so as to maximize flexibility in the use of CDBG-DR funds, including by reducing income-based restrictions on eligibility and decentralizing administration of recovery programs.  Harvey did not discriminate by impacting only low- to moderate-income communities, and neither should the State Action Plan or HUD requirements limit recovery funding to such areas.  Pushing program administration and decision making to the regional and local levels will promote a more equitable allocation across eligible communities with greater citizen participation and input.

Of course there’s no guarantee we’ll qualify and be awarded any grant funds.  Our past experience based on our aggregate income level is a key factor in setting expectations.  As is the fact that it’s a competitive process; as hard as we were hit, there are countless other Texas cities and counties that were devastated by Harvey and are now pursuing the same funding sources.  Still, we know we won’t receive any grants for which we don’t apply, so we’ll keep at it.