The Austin Chronicle

Katrina's Price Tag

By Kimberly Reeves, September 23, 2005, News

Austin is looking at a preliminary price tag of at least $3 million for the city's Hurricane Katrina response efforts – and Mayor Will Wynn is counting on our representatives in Washington, D.C., to help square up the tab with federal dollars.

That won't be easy, given the tug-of-war over the first $61 billion appropriated for Katrina recovery efforts. As U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison pointed out last weekend during a tour of the temporary shelter at the Austin Convention Center, Katrina was no ordinary natural disaster: The storm struck one location but left its victims scattered in cities across the country, all of which expect to be compensated. Hutchison, for her part, pledged full reimbursement of costs borne by Texas.

So far, the federal government, through the Office of Budget Management, has proposed executive orders for full compensation of health care costs and close to full reimbursement of educational costs. But such a sweeping promise of payback has left plenty of observers nervous about the prospect of things going awry in the delivery process.

In other words, healthy skepticism has become the rule of thumb when it comes to the federal government's ability to follow through on its word. For instance, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Executive Director Mark McClellan, who spoke to the Texas Medical Association Saturday, pledged the creation of a funding pool for the uncompensated health care of patients who do not meet the income guidelines under Medicaid. Physicians, however, wonder which, if any, health care procedures would be covered under this "pool" and what compensation rates health care providers could expect from the government.

And the promises just keep coming, as do the growing number of uncertainties. In Houston last Friday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged $2.6 billion for public and post-secondary education. There's a hitch, of course. The amount includes $448 million for private school vouchers, which has won few fans in the public school community. But even Spellings' own office cannot confirm what kind of vehicle – a bill or an order? – will carry the funding. Moreover, the Texas Education Agency is still uncertain whether the funding promised by Spellings will offset other regular funding payments for such programs as free lunches, or supplemental federal funding for homeless students. And is the guaranteed $7,500 per student a hard cap for funding, or is it the basic starting point?

A series of bills filed by Hutchison and Texas' other senator, John Cornyn, addresses the specific issues of municipalities that hosted evacuees, such as reimbursement for bulk purchases, overtime for police officers, and lost revenue from canceled conventions.

In Austin, meanwhile, local officials, civic leaders, and mental health professionals huddled at the United Way offices Tuesday morning for some serious soul searching that centered on the theme of sustainability. How, they asked themselves, does a community maintain its Katrina-induced philanthropic buzz long after the temporary shelter at the convention center closes its doors on Friday? "What can we do to sustain the momentum?" asked Fred Butler, director of the Community Action Network. "What can we do to maintain that level of interest?"

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