Although officials with the local Flood Protection Authority said last week they were surprised to learn they would not get state funding this year, the agency’s own documents show they have known for months that funding was ending.
And that’s what Garret Graves, head of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, has been saying all along.
The time frame also undercuts the contention that the $500,000 funding cut is retaliation for the lawsuit the agency filed against oil and gas companies, alleging they’re responsible for coastal loss that is making it harder to protect the New Orleans area from flooding.
Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, said Friday that misleading information conveyed to the media last week was probably the result of miscommunication among his staff.
“I think our staff, in their zeal, may have misinterpreted what may have been said about funding from the state,” Doody conceded in an email Friday.
“What I heard about another year of funding came from within, not from the state. As you see from our budget, we planned not to receive the funding.”
Graves flatly denied that the lawsuit had any bearing on funding decisions.
“I am not going to deny that I am extremely frustrated by the board’s actions, but to try to tie a 2012 budget decision to a lawsuit filed a few months ago is just bogus,” he said via email.
The agency’s decision to direct money to other levee authorities and projects instead “has been discussed since last year,” he said.
The political firestorm surrounding the lawsuit made the timing of the cut an issue. Gov. Bobby Jindal and Graves not only oppose the suit, they made it clear that such opposition would be a “litmus test” for board members, which was a factor in John Barry losing his seat on the board.* The Jindal administration also has pledged to kill the lawsuit in next year’s legislative session. While Graves has said the industry is partly responsible for wetlands loss, he believes the board’s lawsuit will harm the progress of the state’s coastal restoration efforts.
Levee authority had received funding every year since 2007
The levee authority had received $500,000 from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority every year since its inception in 2007, except once when it was given $250,000.
Last Thursday, board members claimed they only recently learned from Graves that they would not receive funding this year. They suspected political payback was at work.
When The Lens sought a comment from Graves, he immediately responded that the board had long known this was the cut-off year. This week, he pointed to minutes from the levee authority’s March Finance Committee meeting that backed him up.
The minutes say that Regional Director Bob Turner acknowledged that no funding would come from Graves’ office and that the 2013-14 budget would be prepared without it.
Agency tried to get funding restored
Doody and other board members said last week that they had known for more than a year that funding would end at some point. But they said their surprise was based on their belief that their staff had successfully lobbied the Legislature to restore the $500,000 for another year.
“So when we did that budget in March, we knew that $500,000 was going to stop and we planned for it,” said Stephen Estopinal, treasurer of the Flood Protection Authority board.
By the end of the legislative session in June, “we thought it was back again. And the first we knew it wasn’t there, was just a couple of weeks ago.”
But he admitted that the board’s information was problematic. “Now, the problem is, all this was secondhand,” he said. “It was at least hearsay because none of us [the board] were involved in it. We were just told about it, and believed it.”
Graves said his recent statement to the board merely reconfirmed the agency would no longer fund the east bank levee authority. “The fact that the board was ‘surprised’ when their own notes and their approved budget repeatedly confirm this don’t help their credibility,” he said.
He also said neither he nor his staff was aware of any lobbying effort, though he wouldn’t necessarily have known about it. And his staff never suggested to the Flood Protection Authority that funding would continue.
“I triple-checked with our folks and no one indicated anything to them other than in 2012 when we said it was likely the last year for funding,” he said.
Graves: East bank levee authority has gotten ample support from the state
Last week, Graves said the reduction in the local board’s share of funding was nothing more than part of routine budget decisions to spread limited funds to numerous levee boards across the coast. He later said that the coastal agency had prioritized startup funding over bureaucracy.
Skeptics pointed out that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, which opposes the suit, did not see its funding eliminated. However, all of the other levee boards in the state oppose the suit.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East is funded by property taxes from the three local levee districts it oversees: Orleans, East Jefferson and Lake Borgne Basin, which consists primarily of St. Bernard Parish. Until this year, half of its roughly $1 million administrative budget came from the state. Now that $500,000 cost will be handed to local property owners.
Graves said that it’s misleading to say that the state had provided half of the agency’s administrative budget because that doesn’t account for all the money the state has spent on the levee system protecting New Orleans. The east bank levee authority “is getting more money from CPRA [the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority] than anyone else — no matter how you measure,” he said.
“You have other levee districts that have little to no protection, voted to impose millage and two sales tax to build protection because the feds can’t get a project authorized or funded and here we are covering all costs in New Orleans when they have the best protection system in the state,” Graves said. “How do we explain that to Houma and other areas?”
*Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Jindal and Graves “orchestrated” the removal of John Barry from the Flood Protection Authority board. Graves said that support of the lawsuit would be a “litmus test” for Jindal to appoint board members, and members of the nominating committee discussed that opposition in deciding not renominate Barry.