Politics & Government

Tillis calls for local governments to be able to take control of disaster money

Corrected at 9 p.m. on Aug. 29. See details in story.

Citing North Carolina’s slow-spender status for Hurricane Matthew disaster relief money, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis announced his intention Wednesday to propose legislation that would allow local governments to assume control of funds if state agencies fail to hit spending benchmarks after 18 months.

Flanked by Republican state legislators including House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger during a press conference at the Legislative Building, Tillis said, “We know we need funding for recovery, we need funding for resiliency, but I will tell you, ladies and gentlemen, it hurts our case when we’re designated as a slow spender. It hurts our case when other states that absorb very similar damage seem to be doing much, much better.”

Tillis’ remarks were focused on Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds, a U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stream meant to be the final pot of money used to recover from a disaster. The so-called CDBG-DR money can be used to pay for lingering unmet needs and boost mitigation efforts.

Of 104 active CDBG-DR grants, 65 — including North Carolina’s $236.5 million in Matthew funds — are designated by HUD as slow spenders.

That status has been the subject of much concern among members of the N.C. General Assembly, which has appointed a disaster relief oversight committee to investigate the funds’ expenditures.

A press release from Tillis’ office said the Ensuring Disaster Recovery for Local Communities Act would give the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) and other programs that oversee CDBG-DR funds 18 months to meet benchmarks before counties and municipalities could ask to take control of the money. The local government would then have the ability to take however much money HUD determined to be its unmet need and implement the action plan already developed by the state agency.

Tillis pointed to a report from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division in justifying the measure, including a portion where counties told evaluators they could better administer the CDBG-DR program than state Emergency Management officials.

“What we’re trying to do is bypass in many instances any sort of federal bureaucracy that we don’t need to and to stand up capabilities within HUD to help the local governments administer their programs,” said Tillis.

Tillis and several Republican legislators blasted the Cooper administration’s handling of the CDBG-DR funds throughout Wednesday’s press conference.

Gov. Cooper’s administration responds

In a prepared statement Wednesday, N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry cautioned against overcorrecting. The N.C. Office of Resiliency and Recovery (NCORR), which falls under Sprayberry, was just established this year and is now the designated grantee of CDBG-DR funds.

Previously, the money went to the N.C. Department of Commerce before being transferred to Emergency Management.

“We have learned from experience that many local governments lack the staff expertise and capacity to administer hundreds of millions of dollars of highly regulated federal aid, and a lack of a uniform process can cause inefficiency in drawing federal funds,” Sprayberry wrote. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but must continue to work with our state and federal partners to remove unnecessary red tape to help communities rebuild stronger and smarter.”

Early Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office issued a release stating that North Carolina has spent $2.8 billion in state and federal money to assist in the recovery from Matthew and Florence. As of late July, NCORR had spent $14.2 million of the funds, a figure that does not account for all funds that had been awarded.

The release from Cooper’s office stated that NCORR has either spent or committed $93 million of the CDBG-DR funds. Last week, NCORR announced a memorandum of understanding with the N.C. Housing Finance Agency that would see $16.6 million in CDBG-DR funds used to build 80 affordable housing units in Fayetteville and 48 for elderly people in Goldsboro.

In a prepared statement, Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said, “Unfortunately, because Senator Tillis either doesn’t have much sway in Washington or because he cares more about his re-election campaign than doing his job, North Carolina doesn’t yet have one single penny of CDBG-DR federal housing money that’s specifically for Hurricane Florence survivors. Governor Cooper has and will continue to set politics aside to do what’s right by storm survivors and it’s shameful that Senator Tillis and Republican leaders in Raleigh can’t do the same.”

A Tillis spokesman said he and Sen. Richard Burr worked earlier this year to secure a provision in a disaster supplemental bill allowing North Carolina to use Florence and Matthew funds interchangeably.

The impact from hurricanes

Republican legislators said Wednesday that as the administrative process continues, their constituents continue to feel the impacts of the storms. Rep. Brenden Jones, a Fair Bluff Republican, said residents of his district have spent 1,055 days waiting for relief since Hurricane Matthew.

“If any of you were waiting 1,055 days, you’d have the same frustration that we feel,” Jones said. “We feel abandoned, we have asked for help, I have pleaded. ... Is it incompetence? Is it just not a willingness to help us? I just don’t know.”

Eastern North Carolina suffered the impact of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, with widespread flooding throughout the region but particularly in areas such as Kinston and Lumberton. Less than two years later, Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains caused many of the same areas to flood and affected an even wider swath of the state.

Last week, HUD published a long-awaited Federal Register notice governing the use of an additional $168 million in Matthew mitigation funds. North Carolina is also waiting for register notices for $336.5 million from Hurricane Florence, as well as one describing what additional Florence funds the state can expect.

In total, according to figures provided by U.S. Rep. David Price’s office, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee estimates North Carolina could be waiting for as much as $775 million in additional funding, including the Matthew mitigation money and all Florence funds. The total CDBG-DR funds across the two storms could top $1 billion.

As chairman of the House appropriations committee overseeing transportation and public housing, Price has called for HUD Secretary Ben Carson to more quickly publish CDBG-DR notices and advocated to overhaul the program.

After learning of Tillis’ proposal to give local government the ability to assume control of funds after 18 months, Price said, “I would really question parceling out the administration of a very complicated federal program with lots of pitfalls, a lot of expertise required, parceling that out to multiple jurisdictions. That sounds like a formula for poor coordination and poor oversight.”

The name of the building where Sen. Thom Tillis spoke has been corrected.

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.