GONZALES — Ascension Parish leaders say they aren't happy with the state's plan to parcel out $1.2 billion in recovery money as it develops a long-term management structure for the region's watersheds after the March and August 2016 floods.
Ascension Parish Council members and Parish President Kenny Matassa and his administrators have aired their dissatisfaction with what they say is a bureaucratic and diffuse framework to vet projects for the Baton Rouge area, the most heavily affected portion of the state in the August 2016 flood.
They questioned the lengthy time period set aside for planning projects and objected to areas hardest by flooding not having a greater voice in what projects get funded.
Drawing the most fire is that the eastern part of Ascension is on an 17-member regional steering committee representing a 13-parish swath across the breadth of the Florida Parishes, from the Mississippi River west to the Mississippi state line, and also down into the River Parishes.
The region includes East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes but also St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, Washington and St. Tammany parishes.
Some Ascension council members, like Bill Dawson, say the region should be more narrowly drawn around the Amite River Basin and that it should receive a major share of federal aid due to the severity of the flooding within the basin.
The Region 7 steering committee, which covers hard-hit eastern Ascension, is one of eight regions being developed across the state as part of the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. The initiative is designed to leverage $1.2 billion in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money coming to Louisiana after the 2016 floods into a long-term program of disaster resilience and floodplain management statewide.
"I know that a lot of people are losing sight of this, but (it's) very important to recognize that the Watershed Initiative is not exclusively about spending $1.2 billion," said Pat Forbes, executive director of the state Office of Community Development, which is managing the HUD money.
The objective, he said, is to fundamentally change the approach to flood risk management for the whole state.
At the same time, HUD rules for the money say the 10 worst-affected parishes in the 2016 floods must benefit from projects funded with at least 50% of the $1.2 billion, though it could be a greater share.
Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Livingston, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes are among the top 10 and all are in the Region 7 steering committee, state plans say. Lafayette Parish and western Ascension Parish are also in the top 10 but part of different regions.
But Ascension officials said they are leery of a steering committee structure that guarantees them just one representative among the flood plain managers, engineers, developers, environmental groups, social workers, teachers, faith-based leaders or social workers who could sit on the body.
The parish officials' concerns have come to light in recent weeks as they were asked to appoint the Capital Region Planning Commission as the regional steering committee's manager and fiscal agent for expected state planning and technical assistant money.
Up to $400,000 will be funneled from the state to the Planning Commission, which already serves as a conduit for federal highway money for the Baton Rouge area. The money is to be used to help the watershed steering committee hire experts.
Ascension council members had to be assured by parish administration officials that their vote for the Baton Rouge-based Planning Commission, which most parish officials favored, was not also a vote for the steering committee structure, which they did not.
"So we’re not in any way, by supporting this, endorsing the idea that a social worker from West Feliciana Parish or a member of the community in Washington Parish is gonna decide — and have two votes — when the parish of Ascension only has one, and we need projects that relieve the flooding of some of the most severely impacted people in the 2016 flood," Ascension Council Chair Teri Casso said in a recent East Ascension drainage meeting.
"I don't believe we are endorsing the program at all," William Daniel, Ascension's infrastructure director, responded.
He added that parish just needed to submit a letter supporting a manager by October, or, if the parish didn't, Ascension would be cut out of the program.
The council ended up supporting the Planning Commission Thursday, with only Dawson voting against because of his issues with the structure of the steering committee.
State officials behind the watershed initiative said parish officials' concerns were understandable but said the regional steering committee is only a first step to start the watershed effort from scratch.
"This steering committee thing is very much a temporary structure. We don’t claim to be experts in exactly how this needs to be done because it has never been done before," Forbes said.
The broad array of parishes in Ascension's region were combined because they all ultimately drain into Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain and are relatively flat, Forbes added, but the committee structure could change in the future.
State officials envision that more robust regional entities firmly rooted in the local parishes could eventually replace the steering committees.
"What we expect is for that steering committee, the local leadership within that region, with the help of this technical assistance that we provide, to come up with the next generation of regional governance for the next round of funding and for going into the future," Forbes said.
Ascension officials also were critical of the three-year time frame for the steering committee's work, even as the state plans to have $100 million available to do projects in the first half of next year before the technical work is finished.
Forbes said that money is for projects that provide clear flood risk reduction with an extremely low risk of secondary negative impacts in other areas.
Each region is guaranteed $5 million and can compete for a share of the remaining $60 million.
The remaining $800 million to $900 million in HUD money set aside for projects is divided into two batches. Part will go to regional projects driven by new watershed modeling that each region is expected to develop first, Forbes said.
The remainder will be set aside for larger state projects benefiting multiple regions at once, he said.