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NC lawmakers back changes to distribute hurricane funds

By GARY D. ROBERTSONAugust 28, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Still unsatisfied with the state’s distribution of long-term federal housing funds after Hurricane Matthew, North Carolina Republicans led by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis are backing a proposal geared toward accelerating recovery spending for future storms.

Tillis said Wednesday that he would introduce federal legislation to attempt to speed up federal assistance to families and communities struggling to rebound from hurricanes. He and state legislators underscored those harmed by Matthew, which came ashore nearly three years ago.

At a news conference, Tillis and state legislators told stories of residents still waiting for housing repair money so they can move back into their homes. Some of the same people, Tillis said, suffered more damage after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

“They’ve got to be asking the question, ‘Why isn’t that money flowing sooner?’ That’s the question we’re asking,” Tillis said at a Legislative Building news conference. “There may be a legitimate answer for a portion of it, but it’s hard to believe that it would be for all of it.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $237 million to the state in the form of a community block grant designed as a last resort to reimburse or pay individuals, governments and builders for permanent housing and infrastructure recovery. A little more than 8% of these funds — separate from hundreds of millions of recovery dollars handed out soon after the storm for immediate needs — actually has been drawn down so far for projects, according to numbers from the state office managing the award.

The bill, which Tillis said he would file next month, would set “tangible spending goals” for agencies in states that manage the grants. And cities and counties could ask HUD to send federal assistance directly to them if a state is designated a “slow spender” for 18 months.

“In many instances, we have the expertise or the nature of the needs are such that we can simply streamline the process down to the local governments,” Tillis said. The legislation also would ask the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review property buyout programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management and offer suggested improvements. In these programs, residents are moved to higher ground outside of flood plains.

In a report released in May, the legislature’s government watchdog agency blamed administrative mistakes and a lack of expertise for the block grant distribution delays. HUD has designated North Carolina a “slow spender” of the grant. The federal government this month just approved the rules for the state on how to spend another $168 million in Matthew-related block grant money.

The watchdog agency’s report said some local government employees indicated counties could have implemented the disaster recovery block grant themselves.

State Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry appeared to discourage the idea of giving local governments direct access to funds, saying they “lack the staff expertise and capacity to administer hundreds of millions of dollars of highly regulated federal aid.”

In a release, Sprayberry said the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency, created last year in part to implement these grants, has made “significant progress in building an organization to efficiently get resources to the people who need them.”

Although Tillis said he wasn’t seeking to issue blame on the North Carolina delays, Republicans have been quick to criticize Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose administration includes the state recovery office.

“We’re constantly having to hear from our constituents about the slow spending that’s been happening with the governor’s administration and the administration of this money,” state Sen. Danny Britt of Lumberton said. State House members said they would resume hearings on the recovery efforts.

Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said late Wednesday that $93 million of the $237 million in the Matthew block grant is either “spent or committed.” She blamed Tillis, who is seeking reelection next year, and Republicans for seeking to score political points while Cooper is trying “to do what’s right by storm survivors.”

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