DENHAM SPRINGS — Local and parish government will likely need an infusion of federal money to help offset the loss in tax revenue in the wake of the historic flood, Congressman Garret Graves said.
The Republican House member from Baton Rouge said he is hammering out a plan that would draw funds from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to assure governments can continue services without interruption after shortfall in tax revenue, coupled with added expenses incurred during the flood.
“A lot of these organizations run off ad valorem taxes,” Graves said. “Let’s be honest: a gutted home isn’t worth what a regularly built home is worth, and property taxes will drop off precipitously.
“This will create a cascading effect through communities, so we’ve talked to FEMA about ways to close those gaps,” he said. “Without the funding, you can’t continue the services.”
Parish Assessor Jeff Taylor recently began a reassessment process on damaged homes throughout the parish. Local and parish government officials have not yet determined the extent of the shortfalls.
Livingston Sheriff Jason Ard recently said he borrowed $5 million from the Louisiana Bond Commission to set aside in the event he needs the funds to meet payroll once the impending shortfalls come into play.
Governor John Bel Edwards has asked Congress to approve $2.8 billion in relief for Louisiana, some of which would come through availability from grant programs.
Capitol Hill finally got the message about the severity of flooding in Livingston and surrounding parishes, Graves said.
Graves said he gathered 10 Congressmen from different parts of the country to tour Livingston and other areas ravaged in the flood.
He drove them around to meet with various local and chamber leaders, at the same time he exposed them to the extent of the damages.
Many headed to Louisiana with a skeptical premonition about the area’s need for funding to speed up recovery from the flood that brought 31.39 inches of rain in less than 36 hours to the Watson area.
“After they left Louisiana, they became advocates – they totally get it,” Graves said. “You come down here, you see it and you smell it.”
Graves and the rest of the Louisiana delegation on Capitol Hill have worked to educate others on the severity of the flood problems.
“We’re getting more support and awareness,” he said. “Right now this is our region with this issue, but next week it could be any other town in the United States.
“Anytime someone experiences something as catastrophic as this it’s the nation’s responsibility to present a hand-up,” he said. “People are becoming more receptive.”
Graves believes the close-up look at damages may also put the wheels in motion to speed up work on the Comite River Diversion Canal.
He is also hopeful that the widespread damage opened the eyes on the need for an expanded version of the project.
“What we’re asking for as a state delegation is a second phase that would immediately begin after the first phase, something that puts the project on steroids,” Graves said.
The rapid growth of Livingston, Ascension and Central-Zachary area of East Baton Rouge Parish necessitates an update on the project, he said.
“You have some of the fastest growing areas in the state that are in this project area,” he said. “The existing project was dated for 1983, not 2016.
“We need to immediately come in with the second phase, which would give extra protection to the area,” Graves said. “We also need an Amite portion that pulls off water from that watershed and sends it into the Mississippi River.”
Completion of the long-delayed project would prove far more sensible than the mitigation projects that many area residents fear will force home elevation, a requirement most could not afford.
“It would lower the base-flood elevation and prevent home elevations,” Graves said. “They’re actually looking at forcing thousands of residents to raise their homes versus finishing a project that they have been paying on for more than twenty years, and that’s unacceptable.
“If homes are elevated, they still can’t get to the office or grocery store,” he said. “If you finish the canal, your community remains functional.”
Graves, however, has been outspoken in his criticism of the costs involved in the FEMA movable home units (trailers).
The $100,000 involved with the construction, setup and removal of the homes could go further by giving the funds directly to the homeowners for the rebuilding effort.
“Let them do it themselves if they want,” Graves said. “Let them go to Home Depot, Lowe’s or Stine Lumber and let them buy it themselves and put the money back into their communities so they can make them better and help them recover.
“It’s the most cost-effective means for taxpayers to give them even half that amount and let them do it themselves or hire a contractor,” he said. “The homeowners save money, and the government saves money.”
The frustration with FEMA does not end with its plundering response or questionable spending, Graves said.
He and other Louisiana lawmakers – local, state and federal – have lashed out at FEMA Secretary Craig Fugate, who has been missing in action since the onset of the disaster.
“I like Craig and he has the experience to do the job, unlike Michael Brown, the FEMA manager under George W. Bush,” Graves said. “But this is the fourth most costly flood disaster in history and he’s not around, even when we need his help in all the bureaucratic impediments to our recovery.
“I even tried calling him this morning, and he’s still not available … it’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Craig should be all over this thing. This is only one of the worst disasters in our history.”