|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Stories Added - December 2009
Copyright 2009 - Polk County Publishing Company
Officials support DETCOG’s plan to split relief funds
Polk County Enterprise - December 2009
LIVINGSTON — Three county judges in the 12-county Deep East Texas area offered testimony at a public hearing in Livingston Friday supporting a proposed method of distribution for over $209 million in Community Development Block Grant funds. Polk County Judge John Thompson, Houston County Judge Lonnie Hunt and Trinity County Judge Mark Evans voiced their support of proposed method of distribution by the Deep East Texas Council of Governments and vented their frustrations at the nonsensical delays they’ve encountered over the 15 months since Hurricane Ike struck. Federal disaster aid totaling $3 billion has been allocated to Texas, but local governments are still waiting for funds from the state. “A year and a half later later we are still waiting for the money from the state. There are promises of grants everywhere of every size, every shape and every description,” Thompson said.
“It’s enough for Polk County to address our priority recovery projects, yet once these funds reached the state level — I am reminded of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’,” Thompson said. “There are promises of grants everywhere, but the ensuing mess created by the state’s apparent mishandling of program development and guidelines is resulting in the inability of many jurisdictions, including Polk County, to be able to use the money — that’s assuming we’re going to get any money.” Thompson blasted state officials for spending $100 million to identify and quantify non-housing needs, but spent nothing to do the same for housing needs. That failure has been cited as contributing to the rejection of the statewide recovery plant by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Shame on the State of Texas if one penny of disaster recovery funding is lost or one person’s needs go unanswered because of a government’s inability or failure to work through this process,” Thompson said. “It’s not time to get started. It is past time.
We are ready to put this recovery funding to work where it’s needed. We need to get this job done.” DETCOG officials were planning to hold the hearings later in December but fast-tracked the meetings after HUD rejected the statewide plan to distribute the funds. HUD’s rejection was fueled by complaints filed by two advocacy groups, according to DETCOG Executive Director Walter Diggles. Those complaints were based on news coverage and opinion pieces that were published in the Galveston County Daily News on hearings on the city’s plan for public housing. The advocacy groups are using that coverage on the City of Galveston to justify its claims that the statewide plan “ignores the needs of the low to moderate income community,” Diggles said. Houston County Judge Lonnie Hunt questioned HUD’s criteria for qualifying counties as low to moderate income when several DETCOG counties meet virtually every other poverty test. Hunt cited 2007 Census figures that list Houston County’s median household income at $33,497, while Texas median household income is $47,563. In Houston County 24 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, while statewide that figure is 16.3 percent. The median value of owner occupied housing units is $49,300 in Houston County and $82,500 statewide. Hunt also said his small rural county is not economically stratified like other areas.
Low income families share streets, water lines and schools with affluent families. “Ike is the third major disaster to affect our region this decade,” Hunt said. “While we were lending a hand to our neighbors and taking care of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, we were blindsided by Hurricane Rita. Two years later, before we could recover from Rita, along came Ike.” “Probably the major problem cause by hurricane in our region was fallen trees. These trees damaged homes and businesses; blocked roads and isolated many residents; blocked our creeks and streams and contributed to flooding and erosion and other drainage problems,” Hunt said. “Most of us went days and some of us went weeks without power and water. All while we were dealing with the devastation of our local residents, we were also helping evacuees from areas closer to the coast,” Hunt said. “Many of our counties are know as ‘pass through’ counties, but that doesn’t mean a thing. My passthrough county provided shelter for hundreds of evacuees,” Hunt said.
The disaster brought Houston County’s economic boom to a halt. “Two years ago, the economy in my county was booming. Today we are struggling.” Hunt also pleaded for flexibility that would allow local officials to reallocate housing funds to non-housing needs, as provided in the original distribution plan. Once housing needs are met, Hunt wants locally elected officials to determine where to spend funds to provide the best benefit for low to moderate income families. “I know politics plays a role in everything that is done in Washington and a good bit of what is done in Austin. But we don’t let politics get in our way here,” Hunt said. “If the Texas Department of Rural Affairs and HUD will work with us, Deep East Texas will be a shining example to the rest of the country on how to get things done to help our people.” Following Friday’s Livingston meeting TDRA spokesman Dan Robertson pointed out that Deep East Texas has received $26,650,179 in disaster recovery funds.
The list he distributed included TDRA-approved projects that largely funded the installation of generator power for water and sewer providers. No projects for Livingston or Polk County were on that list. Judge Evans said listed projects for Trinity County had been approved in July were ready to be let. Details on the DETCOG proposed method of distribution are available for review at www. detcog.org. Public comments can be made in writing on the plan through Monday. DETCOG directors will meet Thursday to vote on the proposal and forward it to state officials.