Two big cheeses from Iowa’s state government in Des Moines have to come to two of the last three City Council meetings here with the same message: city leaders are doing a great job in flood recovery; the state is, too; it’s the federal government that’s slowing disaster relief down and dispensing it unfairly.
The council and City Manager Jim Prosser couldn’t hire important people — this week it was Michael Tramontina, head of the state’s Department of Economic Development, and two weeks ago it was David Miller, head of the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management — to say such nice things about them.
That was no truer than when Tramontina, like Miller before him, went out of his way to praise the use of outside consultants to help with flood recovery.
Of course, no issue at City Hall has garnered nearly as many hoots as the use of a stable of costly consultants to help in the city’s flood recovery.
“Consultants are invaluable,” Tramontina said in his lengthy presentation in front of the council, a meeting that the city tapes for rebroadcast on local cable TV.
He said the state of Iowa, in his case, simply did not have the number of employees or employees with disaster experience to figure out how to deal with a disaster as large as the flood disaster of 2008.
“You need someone who has been through it,” he said. “You need consultants to find your way.”
He, like others, rated Iowa’s flood disaster as one of the top ones in terms of damage to public buildings and infrastructure in the nation’s history. He put it at number five.
He said Iowa, to date, has received a total of $282 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds to help with the disaster, an amount, he, too, said was less than Iowa should have had coming.
Talking about Iowa’s share of federal disaster funds is not so unlike talking about the state’s ethanol industry. It’s pretty easy to get a steady dose of the home team’s position.
Tramontina said much work from Gov. Chet Culver on down has gone into cajoling and arm-twisting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to come up with a better formula when it shells out $4 billion more dollars among 30 states that had natural disasters in 2008.
The state of Iowa believes the HUD formula should take into account the amount of damage to public buildings and infrastructure as well as things like population.
At minimum, Iowa should get $250 million of the next HUD money, which could be coming by month’s end, he said. Iowa should get $800 to $900 million if Iowa’s version of the distribution formula wins out, Tramontina said.
He was particularly complimentary of the city of Cedar Rapids’ hiring of a third-party administrator to handle the way state Jumpstart and federal CDBG money flows through what he described as a swampland of federal regulations to flood victims.
The local bureaucratic apparatus will do the city well when the federal auditors show up to see how much has been handed out inappropriately, and so, how much money must be returned, he said.
It has been something of a slow go, Tramontina said, in delivering funds. But they are flowing now.
As he was making that point, he had his associates and city staff stand in front of the room and hold up long sheets of paper comparing Iowa’s much quicker progress in delivering disaster funds than hurricane-hit Texas’ progress of a few years ago.
It took Texas 608 days even with Texas resident George Bush in the White House, he said.
Of note, Tramontina’s high praise this week stood in contrast to reports that City Council members like Justin Shields and Jerry McGrane have brought back from lobbying trips to Des Moines. Both council members have said they were told there that Cedar Rapids city government is dysfunctional, and as McGrane has put it, full of a bunch of nincompoops.
Tramontina’s oratory had little impact on the few flood victims and neighborhood leaders who came to the council microphone and chewed on the council once the state official sat down.