City promises local funding for 115 homes destroyed by flooding
Monday, November 18, 2013 by Mark Richardson
City officials are disputing charges made by an ad hoc relief group last week that funding may not be available to buy out 115 Onion Creek area homes damaged or destroyed in the Halloween floods.
However, both City of Austin and Travis County officials say the wheels of government can sometimes move slowly, and that it could take five to six months or longer for the buyout process to get around to all the homes that have been identified.
A local aid group named Austin Common Ground Relief issued a news release late last week saying that city officials and their contractor could not name a source of funding for the planned buyout of 115 homes the city is adding to its program.
Austin Common Ground Relief’s Francisco Cortez said the city could be setting the latest victims up for a similar situation to 2007, where funds designated for Onion Creek neighborhood buyouts by the Army Corps of Engineers ran out and left a number of residents at risk for future flood events.
“We can’t wait for the city to come to aid of our communities,” said Cortez. “People’s homes have been destroyed; many of them don’t have gas and its getting cold. Now the city is telling people that they have to wait four or five months for anything to happen, when they should have bought these homes years ago.”
Stephanie Lott, public information specialist for the Watershed Protection Department, said the city has already begun contacting many of the people who are going to be part of the buyout program.
“We have started a process to get appraisals on the houses, but we can’t do it all at once,” Lott said. “Some people may get offers a little sooner than others, but our estimate will be that it will be sometimes next year, maybe about five months from now, before with finish all of them. It would say that by April they will all have offers.”
She said the city has identified funding for the 115 new homes designated for a buyout.
“Right now the funding is going to be local funding. We’d love to have federal funding but right now it is local,” she said. “(The funding will) be a combination of drainage utility fees, a little bit of leftover bond money and funds from some other sources. We have enough to fund the 115 houses we have identified.” The city does not yet have a dollar figure for the cost of the latest buyout.
Since 1999, the city has bought out 323 homes as part of its flood buyout program, and the city is adding the 115 homes to that group. Lott said some of the people included in the latest group of homeowners have been eligible for buyouts in the past but some people had previously chosen not to participate.
Meanwhile, Travis County officials held two meetings last week to inform people affected by the floods about plans to buy out homes damaged or destroyed in unincorporated areas. However, county officials are still trying to identify funds in the current budget that could be used to fund a buyout.
Melinda Mallia, a project manager for the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, said county officials are still attempting to identify people who may be eligible for the buyout, some of whom may not have been able to get to the buyout meetings. Now, she says, they are working to find the funds.
“People are analyzing bond covenants and asking ‘Can money be shifted from here, legally?’” Mallia said. “They are trying to find areas where they can shift money. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen there, other than they are pretty serious about finding money to buy out people who’ve been flooded out and don’t have a place to live.”
She said county staff plans to present their latest findings, including a ballpark figure of home many buyouts they might need to make, to County Commissioners Tuesday.
Austin Common Ground Relief is one of several non-government organizations bringing relief to the flood-stricken area, according to spokesman Kit O’Connell. He said the group formed almost immediately after the flood to begin providing assistance to the victims.
“We are a grass-roots network of residents and volunteers providing food, labor, donations and other forms of support to the victims of the flood,” he said, adding that the group relies entirely on volunteer donations.
“Several members of our group either have experienced providing aid after Hurricane Katrina, or were victims of that storm,” O’Connell said. “We know that eventually, government aid will drop off, and we plan to be there for these people to fill in the gaps after that happens.”
He said the group has a Facebook page where interested people can find out more about them and make donations. The American Red Cross of Central Texas and the Austin Disaster Relief Network are also accepting donations for those impacted by the flood.
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