The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Cautionary letters from Army Corps and state of Iowa suggest a City Hall not in idle, but one pushing to open doors for flood-disaster help

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on March 24, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Two letters with a similar cautionary tone arrived at City Hall in the last few days. One was from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; one from the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

As much as anything the letters portray a Cedar Rapids City Hall unwilling to sit by and wait for state government or Uncle Sam to show up with big bags of money on the day or time upon which they decide.

Instead, the letters suggest that Cedar Rapids city government is testing the limits and the rules and working to convince the federal and state governments to use some creativity to try to give the city of Cedar Rapids the ability to buy out flood-damaged homes faster than the rules now allow.

The city’s central request is that it be allowed to use an expected large infusion of Community Development Block Grants to buy out 550 or so flood-damaged homes that now sit in a proposed construction area where the Corps is expected to build a new levee system and where it is apt to need space to move some streets and to add a series of pumping stations.

The federal rules now say that those property cannot be bought out until the Corps has its flood-protection feasibility study approved, which isn’t expected before June 2010.

What City Manager Jim Prosser is pushing for is for the city to have the ability to use CDBG funds from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to buy those homes out, and then to have the Corps reimburse the city for those funds (or give the city credit toward money it must provide as a local project match) as the Corps moves ahead with its levee-building project.

“I would like to make you aware that the Federal Government does not encourage land acquisition” prior to the completion of the Corps’ feasibility study and the Corps subsequent notice-to-proceed agreement with the city, Ron Williams, acting chief of the Corps’ Partnership Support Branch, Rock Island, Ill., says in a letter to the city.

Williams then talks of the “risks” to the city. Chief among the risks is that Congress at the end of the day might not fund the city’s proposed flood-protection system. In that event, there would be no Corps’ money to pay for the buy outs that might already have occurred.

At the same time, Michael Tramontina, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, writes to Cedar Rapids’ Prosser on a related front about the city’s plan to use city funds to pay for disaster housing relief with the anticipation that CDBG funds will be coming to reimburse the city.

“We share the goal of providing assistance as quickly as possible to eligible applicants,” Tramontina states. But he continues: “The decision to use city funds until the federal funds become available … is a risk-benefit decision for the city to evaluate.”

On Tuesday, Prosser said the letter from the Corps and the letter from the Iowa Department of Economic Development represent bureaucracy in a good sense at work. The letters put the positions of the state and federal agencies down on paper, which Prosser said helps document the issues that need resolved.

The heart of the problem, he said, is that federal programs used in disasters –- by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — are not designed for the quick actions that are needed and that people expect in a disaster.

In particular, Prosser said the city is attempting to make the case that all of the money involved is federal money whether it is CDBG funds that should be available quickly or Corps funds that won’t be available for some time.

The argument, he said, is that the federal government will save considerable money by using CDBG funds in the near-term to buy out homes in the construction area instead of waiting for the Corps to complete its flood study in the next 15 months or so. And Prosser said it also makes good public policy sense to buy out homes more quickly. Why keep people in an ongoing “indeterminate state?” he asked.

Prosser said the city is pushing ahead with “policy papers” on the matter and will be asking Gov. Chet Culver to get directly involved. Some legislative changes in Washington, D.C., might be required to allow an exception to the Corps of Engineers’ current protocols, he said.

“Certainly, they are looking for us to make a case on why there should be exceptions,” Prosser said. “The bigger problem is we’re asking them to do stuff they haven’t done before. It’s not like they are necessarily philosophically opposed to it as much as they don’t have a system in place to support the urgency that we’re pushing ahead with.”

Just a week ago, FEMA announced its willingness to provide funding support for the demolition of more than 300 more flood-damaged houses that the city has concluded are too unsafe to enter. The city is currently in the process of taking down a first group of 72 homes at FEMA expense, but it required the city to make the case to FEMA before the agency agreed to add the larger number of homes to the demolition coverage, Prosser said.

The exceptions the city is now pushing for on buyouts in the proposed levee construction zone is similar to the FEMA decision on demolitions in that it requires the city to make a case to get its way.

“Although with the buyouts, the stakes are much higher, the dollar amounts are much higher and the creativity approach is pushing the limits of what the federal government has done before,” Prosser said.

He said the federal government is willing to allow for certain property acquisition in the building of a highway even before the final approval for the highway project is made.

That model is one the city is trying now to push for buyouts to make way for a levee.

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