There has been a shift in the government market.
For most projects, especially drainage infrastructure, the monetary burden on local governments to make the vision a reality requires the help of grant funding.
Start, for instance, with something small. Hornsby Creek, which runs just a few miles through the center of the parish, was due as part of a $53 million FEMA grant.
Hornsby’s portion of that was $1.5 million, with a 10% parish match.
The ‘cleaning’ process included dredging, de-snagging, removing debris and trees from the creek, and bank stablization. All told, it was just a few miles of work.
Most drainage officials say that tributaries of that size should be cleaned to that scale once every decade, and in some cases widened. Local officials said that it had been at least 40 years, “probably longer,” since the creek had been cleaned to the appropriate scale.
Now, take a larger project such as the Darlington Reservoir. The scope of the project was beneficial in the late 1980s, when the idea of a reservoir in St. Helena Parish, just north of Denham Springs, was first hatched.
That scope is still beneficial, to hear the engineers tell it, with new, modern designs offering upward of five feet of relief by 2016 flood standards.
The problem? In 1989 the project was a cool $189 million, almost $400 million by today’s standards, considering inflation.
Today’s project is estimated at $1.7 billion.
Now, certain factors have to be taken into account, including improved engineering methods as well as more environmental control.
But are those two combined really worth $1.3 billion?
That’s not only doubtful, but the project is slated to be a dry reservoir - not a wet one - which means that the economic boon of adding a body of water - which brings recreation and real estate to the area - won’t come.
It’s a $1.7 billion flood implement, whose cost rose by $1.3 billion beyond inflation.
But, you might say, ‘these are all flood mitigation projects and we have time!’
Well, that’s what they said in 1977.
And now in 2016.
Despite the fact that Hurricane Barry could have been much, much worse.
Let’s not stop there, either, because it’s not just drainage projects which are seeking the funding.
The only reason the road program was able to kick out as much overlay as it did in 2018 and 2019 is because the parish elected to skip the 2017 program to save money for grants.
In 2013 the parish needed $13.5 million, per year, to be able to keep up with road maintenace. With all of the new subdivisions which have been constructed since, you’re looking at closer to $18 million.
The only way that is achievable? Grants.
And there’s more, wouldn’t you know - now the master plan will be funded almost entirely through grants, as the upgrades to the document will all require grant money.
The parish simply doesn’t have it.
Denham’s road program? State and federal grants.
Walker’s road program? State and federal grants.
The list goes on, but here’s the rub - grant money is just tax dollars, collected by the federal government, and distributed either by congress or specific governmental entities for a (specific) use here locally.
It’s a truly unsustainable practice, especially when government intervenes with revenue into markets that don’t cross borders.
What does that mean? The government sends the same amount of money to, say, Texas for their drainage project as it would for the same project in Louisiana. But Texas has a higher tax base, higher incomes, and a larger population. So if the federal government were to disappear, Texas would simply pick up the slack.
Louisiana would be unable to do such a thing, until the markets readjusted for local pricing.
And market adjustments take years.
Which would, again, be a delay for infrastructure development here locally.
Federal involvement in itself increases cost of compliance, as well.
Make no mistake, seeking grants is the financially responsible thing for small, local governments to do. It’s the financially responsible thing to do for the state. And, considering how local governments can utilize some expertise to execute projects a little better, it’s the responsible path for the federal government.
It’s just not a sustainable system.
So it’s the idea of grants that has to be adjusted. Perhaps shifted to more of a free consultation, with funding, to help local or state firms execute a project.
Take CERES for example, who manages the river cleanups in the area. They are from Minnesota, but had the best price and expertise combo to follow FEMA guidelines.
What if FEMA provided consultants themselves as to how to affect the project, and helped local firms through the process? Surely that would bring the price of the project down, inject money into the local economy, and provide valuable experience for local firms who operate on a local economy based pricing scale.
There are ways for the federal government to either enhance local markets, or slowly pull out of the grant game, but in the end financial sustainability for local markets must be discovered.
Either the federal government pays for all of it, or they assist local governments in affecting contracts and project.
J. McHugh David is editor and publisher of the Livingston Parish News.