Council Notes: FEMA Makes Good – So Far

FEMA promises that we'll be reimbursed for our Katrina troubles

The Federal Emergency Management Agency may not be worth a damn (or a levee), but the embattled 1-800-number dispensers at FEMA appear to be doing a heckuva job for Austin. Last week, City Council unanimously approved accepting over $17 million in federal housing funds for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. Simultaneously, a smaller yet substantive amount of federal funding began trickling down to the city, covering the bulk of emergency shelter costs incurred at the Convention Center.

The $17 million covers up to 2,000 housing units (in any of 180 participating apartment complexes) for up to six months, said Deputy Chief Financial Officer Leslie Browder; about 1,200 units are currently filled. The funds, flowing from FEMA to the state to the city, could be stretched out as long as 18 months – FEMA's absolute cutoff for assistance. "If we need to assist people for a longer time, we'll amend the grant," said Browder. Aside from paying the rent, the grant covers utilities, deposits, moving costs, contract costs incurred in placing special needs residents, and any applicable leasing costs.

"As big as this number is, as impressive as it is, this technically is just a pre-approved housing component," Mayor Will Wynn told the council, suggesting the funds won't cover the $8 million Austin incurred in direct emergency shelter costs. However, well over half that in reimbursement is also on its way to Austin – eventually.

"We have been told FEMA approved it," Browder says. But by Monday morning, city staff had not yet received official word from the state on reimbursement: i.e., the $5,448,000 check is in the proverbial mail. That amount should cover worker overtime, medical services, public safety costs, food service, "one-way, point-to-point travel" for evacuees going to stay with persons elsewhere, facilities, and the boosted water bill of 4,000 people showering at our civic house.

The funds also apply towards $1 million in lost revenue from convention cancellations and $1.2 million in "already budgeted" employee costs. These latter two categories should prove especially heartening to city accountants; minus lost revenue, and costs that would've been incurred anyway, the city should be out only around $350,000, not bad for putting up thousands of new neighbors.

Additionally, the financial officer's office is already compiling requests for Rita reimbursement, which has been considerably less than first anticipated.

In sum, it's good to see Austin's out-of-pocket emergency costs – a concern partially responsible for council's willing adoption of the higher proposed (nominal) property tax rate in the new budget – reimbursed to the point of lowered concern in the discussion of city priorities, as we head toward bond elections early next year. As council doesn't meet this week, expect them to authorize acceptance of the additional $5.4 million when they reconvene Oct. 20.

end story

Suddenly confused on your South Austin commute, especially as you near Town Lake? It was only Sept. 1 when council voted 6-1 to proceed with narrowing Riverside Drive as it passes through South First and Dawson Road, in accordance with the creation of Town Lake Park. Construction was originally slated to begin in November, but the city decided to jump the gun when contractor Capital Excavation promised that closing the arterial now would more than halve actual construction time. Aside from narrowing Riverside from four to two lanes, the street will receive a traffic circle, in hopes of slowing through traffic. The closure, from South First to Lamar, is now expected last one month.


*Oops! The following correction ran in the October 21, 2005 issue: In last week's "Council Notes: FEMA Makes Good – So Far," we incorrectly stated that a forthcoming FEMA payment of approximately $5.4 million went toward reimbursement of $1 million in lost revenue from convention cancellations and $1.2 million in previously budgeted employee costs. See this week's Council Notes, for further explanation. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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