NEW ORLEANS -- In the six months before two summer rainstorms overwhelmed the city’s antiquated and dilapidated drainage infrastructure, New Orleans failed to spend a dime of a $141 million federal grant meant to ease the burden on the system of drains, pipes, pumps, turbines and canals.
In its most recent financial tracking report from June, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development labeled the city of New Orleans a “slow spender” because it had yet to tap into the National Disaster Resilience Grant – an award the city won in January 2016 following a ballyhooed national competition.
More than $100 million of the $141 million New Orleans received is supposed to go to eight so-called urban water – or green infrastructure – projects across the Gentilly section of the city. Some add retention ponds to parks, water-absorbing landscaping and sunken-garden neutral grounds similar to those seen on Canal Boulevard in Lakeview.
Some of those projects also received tens of millions of dollars in FEMA funds through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
“They’re critical,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said of the Resilience Grant projects. “All of the things we're talking about is how the city can manage water flow and not just use power to pump it out, because everybody knows we got a gravity issue because we're in a bowl.”
Using $5.1 million from the separate FEMA grants, three of the HUD-supported projects are nearing completion of the initial design phase.
One of those, the $25 million Mirabeau Water Garden project, calls for landscaping a 25-acre patch of land at the corner of Mirabeau and St. Bernard avenues. The city said that would allow it to retain 7.8 million gallons of water in a so-called 10-year storm event and vastly reduce the street flooding that was seen in the surrounding neighborhoods Aug. 5.
Another project proposes swales and storm water parks on empty lots and greenways in Gentilly Woods and Pontchartrain Park. That “Pontilly” project has relied heavily on FEMA money to complete the design phase, and Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert said the city will be ready to put construction contracts out to bid this fall.
But for now, there’s no activity at those sites and the tedious environmental property reviews required under HUD and FEMA rules are only just beginning.
Hebert said it took a year to get a final agreement to use the HUD money. It was finally signed on former President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, Jan. 19. Then, Hebert said, the city was afraid to start spending its own money to get reimbursed by the feds because President Donald Trump announced plans to defund some HUD programs.
Hebert said the city didn’t feel comfortable spending any of the HUD money until the Trump administration gave final approval to the plan in June.
“We didn't want to encumber city funds before we got that document because we did not know what the Trump administration was going to do at HUD,” Hebert said.
But Trump's HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, who came to New Orleans this week, said he wants to see cities across the country spend HUD grants faster.
“I'm concerned about the slow (disbursement) everywhere,” he said. “It's not a problem that's unique to New Orleans.”
The only city or state to get a larger National Disaster Resilience Grant than New Orleans in 2016 was New York City, and it too, had not spent any of its grant money by the June financial tracking report.
Nearly half of the 113 disaster recovery grants tracked by HUD received the “slow spender” label for failing to spend even a tenth of the amount of money it should each month to stay on pace.
To stay on pace to finish by its project deadline of September 2022, New Orleans must spend at a pace of approximately $2.2 million per month and must hit at least $227,000 per month to avoid the “slow spender” label.
Since that June report, New Orleans has spent the first $485,000 of the $141 million HUD grant, Hebert said, which may move the city out of the “slow spender” category.
Carson said there’s blame for slow spending at the local and federal level, but he's at least trying to clear red tape at HUD.
“We're working on it,” he said. “It's a high priority for me. I want to get rid of (regulations). You know, I'm the opposite of a bureaucrat sitting in the midst of bureaucracy.”