A setback in Louisiana's effort to hire a firm to oversee programs that will help people rebuild their flood-damaged homes has set off another round of disputes over the pace with which the state is moving toward getting the programs up and running.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration is scrapping its first attempt at soliciting offers from firms hoping to win a potentially lucrative contract to oversee the programs, amid questions over costs and licensing of the bids received the first time around. Edwards said that the redo "should not delay getting assistance to homeowners impacted by the floods" because the federal government hasn't yet given the state access to the funds, which were approved by Congress last fall.
"Our primary goal is to get assistance to the people of Louisiana as quickly as possible under the federal recovery funding process and at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers,” Edwards, a Democrat, said in a statement.
The task force overseeing how the state will spend federal money for the recovery from last …
But U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, called the setback "frustrating and sloppy" and he continues to question whether the state has done enough to get the money to flood-affected families seven months after the historic floods swept south Louisiana.
"I don't think that the governor is sitting around saying 'What can we do to slow this down?'" Graves told The Advocate on Friday. "I do think that having more intimate involvement in this process and talking to folks who have been through this before might yield outcomes that would get the money into victims hands faster."
The Edwards administration maintains that it has met or exceeded every federal deadline and that the process has been hampered by restrictions in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the grants that are serving as the vehicle for the recovery dollars. Graves, however, said he thinks it's still not fast enough.
Graves said he thinks the state should already have a contractor in place that could begin the background stages of setting up the programs. He said he also felt that the process of putting together a plan was too slow, though the governor's administration has said that it has met or exceeded each of its federally-mandated deadlines.
"If the spending plan had been submitted in September or October, then we would be months ahead of where we are now," he said.
One thing both sides agree on: Negative perceptions about the state's handling of the nearly $1.7 billion directed to the recovery effort by Congress threaten the ability to secure the additional $2 billion in assistance that leaders say is needed.
"The perception that the state isn't being responsible hurts the state's ability to work with our delegation to bring home the rest of the recovery dollars we need," said Edwards' deputy chief of staff Julie Baxter Payer. "We need all of our Louisiana elected officials and our Congressional delegation to stand together to work to bring home the full federal recovery dollars that we need."
Graves said that he's routinely asked by his colleagues what the state has done with the money Congress has already directed to the state as he tries to build support for additional aid. Congress' spending plan runs through April 28. The state's new timeline for hiring a contractor would have one in place around mid-April.
"Getting this money wasn't easy and now every time we go talk to the Appropriations Committee and leadership folks, they cite the fact that we haven't spent what we already received," Graves said. "It's a concern absolutely."
The state Office of Community Development is re-opening the contract selection process after the bids during the first round were deemed too costly, Payer said.
"The costs that came in were high," she said. "We want to try to get those costs down."
There were also protests from firms that the state wanted to address, she added.
The dispute over contractor licensing was discussed during a meeting of the Restore Louisiana Task Force on Friday, with officials agreeing that restarting would help the state avoid potential litigation.
Payer said the second round will be expedited, to avoid delaying the upstart of the programs, which will help homeowners rebuild their flood-damaged houses.
On the eve of delivering money to help flood victims rebuild their homes, the federal agency…
In the coming weeks, the state is expected to launch an online survey where people affected by the floods can submit their information and get into the pipeline for the assistance programs.
"The goal has always been to have the program manager in time so when the line of credit opens up to Louisiana we will be ready to begin the homeowner assistance program," Payer said.
But Graves said attempts to blame delays on the federal government are misguided.
He said he gave the governor's administration a list of recommendations shortly after the storm to get a program in place, but it went "wholesalely ignored."
"I don't think that there was a single thing that they did that I recommended," he said.
State Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat and member of the Restore Louisiana Task Force, defended the state's efforts and said Congress hasn't considered items that he thinks would have helped speed up the process or aid future recovery.
"There are things that need to be done in Congress," James said. "It makes absolutely no sense when we know the federal process is horrible."
James said that the HUD process, which has taken several months to gain approval for the state's plan, has been frustrating and could be addressed in Washington, D.C.
"It's embarrassing that we are dealing with the same HUD issues that we dealt with after Katrina," he said. "You could be doing things to help us in Congress."
Graves said he agrees that there have been "strategic misfires" on the delegation's part from which members are learning.
"I don't think that the delegation has played this thing perfectly," he said. "The reality is that we should all be working entirely in sync on this stuff. We represent the same people."
He said that Edwards' legislative wish list often muddied the process.
"It gets frustrating to me to have to go out there and try to revise to the administration what the state really means," he said.