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Galveston County officials slam General Land Office for ‘top-down’ approach to Harvey aid

August 30, 2018

Galveston County officials sent a letter to the Texas General Land Office this week, slamming the agency’s “top-down” approach to distributing federal aid for Hurricane Harvey recovery, and demanding maximum flexibility in how to spend the money.

The letter, signed by Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, League City Mayor Pat Hallisey, and Friendswood Mayor Mike Foreman, takes aim at disaster aid requirements set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) designed to benefit affected low- to moderate-income (LMI) communities.

“Based on our experience with previous recovery efforts during Hurricanes Rita and Ike, restricting infrastructure funding to activities that only benefit areas that are mostly LMI can prevent the implementation of critical projects that can benefit entire communities,” the Galveston County officials wrote on Tuesday.

The county officials also say the General Land Office has thus far not allowed the county to establish its own housing recovery program for the more than 20,000 homeowners affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the General Land Office, said that the letter amounted to little more than a publicity stunt, noting that the press received the letter from Galveston County before the land office did.

“We have had weekly, if not more frequent, conference calls with all local officials across the affected areas,” Eck said. “We have been in all of the communities, they have our cell phone numbers, we have people assigned that are field representatives working in the area. This is information that’s well known, if (Galveston County) have questions they can always pick up the phone and call us.”

In the letter, county officials claim they were told during a conference call involving HUD officials and U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, the LMI threshold would be determined by a statewide area median income. They claim that GLO has set requirements that the LMI threshold be determined by countywide area median income, which Eck disputed.

“The GLO does not have the capacity to change (the formula),” Eck said. “We have worked with all of our local communities on all of the local concerns they present to us and want our assistance in making the case to HUD. We showed that advocacy to (Galveston County) Judge Mark Henry by arranging that conference call with HUD.”

In Galveston County, the area median income for a family of four is $74,900. A household earning 80 percent or less than that would qualify as low-income, those earning 50 percent or less would qualify as moderate income.

Galveston County has been allocated $29.2 million for local infrastructure projects through the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the regional planning entity overseeing distribution of recovery funds. Another $30 million has been allocated for local housing buyout programs. Federal requirements dictate that 70 percent of that money be spent on LMI populations.

But Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said in a phone interview that the county by county LMI formula would prevent League City and Friendswood from benefitting from federal housing recovery aid because income levels in those cities fall below other affected counties with lower-income populations.

“We think there are going to be a lot of unmet needs in Galveston County,” Henry said.

Eck said that LMI requirements are set by HUD, not the General Land Office, which was the pretext for the aforementioned conference call. She added that Galveston County can always apply to HUD for a waiver of LMI requirements, provided that they can prove that the county’s affected LMI population has been sufficiently taken care of.

“We are there for these communities, we are trying to be supportive, but we have no magic wand for waiving HUD-mandated requirements,” Eck said.

Henry accused the General Land Office of being “misleading” by deflecting any blame to the federal government and that the state agency has the power to change the LMI formula.

“These are not HUD decisions, these are GLO decisions, and they keep trying to mislead people on that,” he said.

Henry also wants GLO to give Galveston County the ability to run its own housing recovery program, as it did after Hurricane Ike battered the county in 2008. Henry said the county simply wants the ability to have local control over the $30 million that has been allocated by the federal government for housing buyout programs.

“They’ve been talking about local control, which apparently means Austin,” Henry said. “After Ike, We set up a nationally recognized housing program. The GLO, to my knowledge, has never run a housing program.”

Henry noted that after Ike, the county’s housing program operated with less than 2 percent of the program dollars spent on administrative costs. He contended that the GLO has discussed administrative costs for the program in the 5 to 10 percent range. He added that the GLO has given Harris County and the city of Houston the ability to establish its own housing program despite not having done so in the past.

“They’ve allowed (Harris County and Houston), who have not run a housing program before, to run a housing program, but an entity with a nationally recognized track record, not allowed to run a housing program,” Henry said. “That makes no sense to me.”

Eck said that Galveston County, unlike Harris County, has yet to prove that it has the capacity to operate its own housing program. Eck said the county was also told by HUD that it does not have the capacity for a direct allocation of disaster aid.

“Galveston County is the only county that continually rehashes the same problems, even though they’ve been told in no uncertain terms by HUD what is necessary to achieve those goals,” she said.

nick.powell@chron.com

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