What Does State's Strained Disaster Relief Fund Mean for Harris County?

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Harris County may not be getting too much help from the state if a major flood event or — we hope not — a hurricane sweeps through the region.

That's because Texas has depleted millions more than expected from its Disaster and Deficiency Grants fund, according to a letter from the governor's office to Harris County state lawmakers, just made public yesterday by the Texas Tribune.

After the second major flood event, in May, a bipartisan group of state representatives from Harris County asked Governor Greg Abbott if he could reallocate some money from the state's disaster relief fund to local government agencies in the county, to reimburse them for many flood recovery expenditures not covered by FEMA. But the state said no — because thanks to the monsoons that fell from the sky last spring, the state doesn't think the $46.1 million it has left in the fund is enough to last through August 2017.

Here was the answer from Abbott's deputy chief of staff, Robert Allen, on June 30:

“Even under the most optimistic of FEMA reimbursement scenarios, the fund balance is a fraction of what would be needed for critical emergency response efforts for a minor hurricane or significant flood event. Importantly, the current balance was meant to last through August 2017, and yet the 2016 hurricane season is only now beginning. As a result, sufficient funds are not available to augment recovery efforts in Harris County—or the many other parts of the state that have been struck by a disaster.”

Sounds like the state is basically out of luck.

But what does this mean for Harris County? What does it mean if this week's storms — predicted to last through next Tuesday — dump millions of gallons onto Houston's roads and homes as they did in April? Or if next month, a hurricane blows through the Gulf of Mexico to the Texas coast?

According to county officials, it means we may not get that state assistance — but they're confident we have sufficient resources to respond to a disaster immediately anyway.

Harris County Executive Budget Director Bill Jackson said that, first off, the vast majority of the county's reimbursements come from FEMA, not the state — and that money is only reimbursed well after the fact. About 25 to 35 percent of funds spent on flood recovery aren't reimbursable, Jackson said — which is the gap state lawmakers were asking the governor to fill with additional recovery funding in Harris County. But Jackson said that, more important, if a major flood event or even a hurricane were to hit tomorrow, the county would be financially capable of handling the disaster.

Over the years, Jackson said, the county has saved roughly $100 million for this very purpose in its “public contingency fund,” pooled from property taxes, which the county would access in the event of a major emergency.

“It's been a major priority of ours to build that fund up,” Jackson said. “[After a flood], you can just kind of picture all your carpet and your furnishings sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up, and every time you came into your house, you had to look at that. It's just a real mental challenge for people who have to do that. If we had a large event, we would look into that fund to help get immediate relief to people.”

Jackson added that the fund is also used to get roads and other critical infrastructure up and running as soon as possible.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he had no knowledge that state lawmakers had even asked the state for more money. While more is always nice, he said, he echoed Jackson's confidence that the county was in good shape and could handle any looming disasters. Looking ahead, though, he said he's concerned about ideas raised by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and other state lawmakers to impose revenue caps on counties in order to curb spending in the coming legislative session. Emmet said that would have a negative impact on that public contingency fund.

“My concern is that, in the future, if they arbitrarily restrict our revenue and put a revenue cap on county government, then we can't build up the resources we need to meet unexpected costs.”

As we reported last week, Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack suggested to a room full of flood victims that perhaps an increase in taxes, devoted specifically to drainage infrastructure and flood prevention, would be a good idea. Emmett would not comment on whether he agreed or disagreed with Radack's suggestion, saying it was not on the table right now.

As storms continue, a flash flood watch remains in effect until Wednesday at 7 p.m. Michael Walter, spokesman for Houston's Office of Emergency Management, said his office has been watching the storms develop all week, though he added, “With storms in southeast Texas, you don't know what you've got coming until you've got it.”

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