Beaumont, TX- Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Hurricane Harvey-mitigation projects in Jefferson and Orange counties may have moved a step closer to reality on Thursday with the signing of the state’s largest storm-recovery bill.
State Rep. Dade Phelan said the legislation gives smaller communities like the ones in his district greater access to the resources needed for the repairs and upgrades stemming from the devastating 2017 tropical storm.
“I think the tools are there now for local governments,” Phelan said after the signing ceremony. “We’re going to give them a road map and the ability to say, ‘Let’s go do this.’”
Phelan, R-Beaumont, and Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, were among the local and statewide leaders accompanying Gov. Greg Abbott in Houston as he made Senate Bill 7 law. The measure sets aside $1.7 billion to help municipalities with infrastructure projects. The bill, authored by Creighton, incorporates parts of Phelan’s House bill.
The new money comes from the state’s rainy day fund. Half will go to the Texas Water Development Board to provide flood-project loans or grants, with $47 million of it set aside to create a state flood plan. The other half will help cover the local match required as cities and counties tackle federally funded recovery work.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick was already thinking about which projects the county will seek help with. That could include an already-approved federal project to raise the levee in Port Arthur, an estimated $800 million project that would require a local match of $280 million.
The project could now qualify for state assistance with the match.
“It was always a great piece of legislation because it provided much needed funds for Harvey relief and flood-control facilities,” Branick said. “But I think it surpassed expectations.”
The new law could also help secure the deepening of the Neches-Sabine Waterway that’s been approved since 2014, Branick said.
The local match for that project would be 25 percent of an estimated $1 billion and probably would have required a tax bond vote, he said.
Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said the matching-fund assistance could let counties think about prevention projects instead of just worrying about the next wave of repairs.
“We could match some of the smaller projects after a storm, but I remember the 10 to 25 percent matches we saw just for property buyouts after (Hurricane) Ike were difficult,” he said.
Thibodeaux also said the amount of paperwork that goes into grant writing and securing federal projects also can be daunting for small local governments.
With the Water Development Board acting as both an arbiter and adviser making sure projects in different communities don’t conflict or overlap with each other, Phelan predicted more collaboration among municipalities trying to improve flood mitigation.
The state program still has some fine-tuning before any checks are cut. For example, Phelan said regulatory guidelines will have to be approved for the Water Development Board’s new role and for the new infrastructure funds.
Then there are the 5-year and 50-year state flood plan mandates that will make sure everyone is working toward the same goal.
“I think there will be some checks and adjustments that we will have to make as we start down this road,” Phelan said. “We will soon learn in the next five years what works and doesn’t work.”