Friday, October 14, 2011

Hidalgo County tries again for levee cash

The Monitor
October 12, 2011
by Jared Janes

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County will try once again for federal reimbursement of more than $60 million in levee repairs that commissioners funded using receipts from a 2006 bond issuance.

County officials are planning to travel to Washington, D.C., later this year to ask federal representatives to re-introduce legislation to reimburse the county for its expenses or identify in-kind contributions and other ways to recapture the funds. The county’s congressional representatives have tried twice before to pass legislation to reimburse the county, but the bills have died in committee each time.

County Judge Ramon Garcia said he is hopeful the third time is the charm, despite the apparent intent of federal budget writers to cut costs.

“We’ve got a better shot … if we do something about it,” Garcia said. “If we’re going to wait for the federal government to send us a check, it’s not going to happen.”

Beginning in 2007, Hidalgo County invested slightly more than $60 million into repairing the county’s aging levee system, including about $45 million that was directed toward adding a concrete flood barrier into the Department of Homeland Security’s border fence. The county’s expenditures came after the International Boundary and Water Commission — the binational agency that manages the flood control system along the Rio Grande — told the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it would not certify the levees, putting thousands of Hidalgo County homeowners at risk of having to buy expensive flood insurance premiums.

Garcia said the county’s funds were “well-spent” because they served as a catalyst for a cash infusion through the economic stimulus package that was used to rebuild more than 90 miles of Hidalgo County levees, a project that proved timely last summer when the Rio Grande crested at its highest point in four decades after Hurricane Alex receded.

But the lack of a formal reimbursement agreement between federal representatives and former County Judge J.D. Salinas’ administration has left the county struggling to be paid back after putting the majority of its voter-approved $100 million bond issuance into the federal responsibility of maintaining the levees. The investment shored up flood systems near the affluent Sharyland Plantation neighborhood and the industrial area around the Foreign Trade Zone, but it left other drainage projects included in the bond issuance for flood-prone parts of the county without a direct funding source.

Hidalgo County commissioners asked two lobbying groups — Hollis Rutledge and Associates and Dos Legislative Services — to lead another effort for federal reimbursement. In 2007 and 2009, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, filed legislation to authorize the IBWC to reimburse state and local governments for expenses on levee improvements.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains flood control systems in the interior of the United States, can reimburse local governments for what they spend. But the IBWC, a little-known federal agency that falls in the oversight of the U.S. Department of State, does not have similar authorization.

Rutledge told commissioners in a presentation Tuesday that he will ask for the legislation to be reintroduced and will also meet with members of the committees where the bills died. He will also explore whether assistance from the North American Development Bank, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other sources could be directed toward county drainage projects that weren’t completed because their share of the bond proceeds went toward the levee system.

“We’re talking about some serious money that we need to recapture from the bond election,” Rutledge said, later adding that it will be a “difficult process” to receive federal reimbursement.

Godfrey Garza, the general manager for the Hidalgo County drainage district, said passing legislation for local drainage projects isn’t unprecedented. A county lobbying effort managed to get its share of the costs for the proposed Raymondville Drain — a massive channel connecting northern Hidalgo County to the Laguna Madre — reduced from 35 percent to 10 percent, saving the county about $70 million over the life of the project.

The county formed a committee in August to identify the county’s pressing drainage and formulate a plan to fund them. Garza said securing federal funding for the committee’s plans would fulfill the same role as federal reimbursement.

“It’s important that we get those dollars back and use them toward the drainage system that we need,” he said. “If we can get state or federal dollars to do those projects, it’s the same thing (as reimbursement).”

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