Local officials, Texas governor at odds over Harvey help

HOUSTON — Tensions between many Texas cities and counties and Gov. Greg Abbott over the use of the state's $11 billion rainy day fund to pay for costs associated with Hurricane Harvey resurfaced Wednesday after a group of local officials sent a letter to the governor asking for money.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was among the nearly 60 leaders of communities hit hard by Harvey who sent the letter to Abbott, said Wednesday that it wasn't intended to be antagonistic toward the governor but to highlight that many local governments need help. The letter sent Tuesday asked that Abbott tap the fund to help match federal grants that can be used on flood mitigation projects.

"This storm connected all of us on all levels. Let's stay connected all the way to the finish line even when it comes to costs," Turner said.

But Abbott sent a letter to Turner saying federal funding from $5 billion that was awarded to the state last year as part of initial disaster assistance is available to help local communities pay their portion of the mitigation grants. Abbott also said Houston hasn't submitted any applications to the state for flood mitigation projects and has spent only $5 million of a $50 million loan Texas gave the city shortly after Harvey hit last August.

"In short, there is more money available to you than you have demonstrated the ability to spend to respond to Hurricane Harvey and to mitigate future damage," Abbott wrote. "I strongly urge you to begin taking advantage of these funds today."

Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said the governor sent similar letters to the 34 other mayors and 22 county judges who signed the Tuesday letter sent to Abbott.

"Jurisdictions like Houston continue to ask for more money despite refusing to identify how that money is intended to be spent. They seem to be seeking a blank check with no identified purpose for the money and no accountability for how it will be spent," Matthews said in a statement.

Officials in Houston and other communities damaged during Harvey have called on Abbott to use the rainy day fund to pay for recovery efforts and flood control projects to prepare for the next storm.

"Come on man. What are we protecting it for? What's the point of holding on in a state where we endured the worst rain fall in the history of this country and you're holding onto $11 billion in the rainy day fund?" Turner said.

Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25 and dumped more than 60 inches (152 centimeters) of rain in some areas of Southeast Texas after weakening to a tropical storm. The storm flooded thousands of homes, was responsible for 68 deaths and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage in Texas.

While Abbott cannot authorize spending from the rainy day fund, he can call a special session of the Legislature on the issue. But Abbott has said he sees no need to do that.

Houston officials pushed back on claims the city hasn't submitted any paperwork to apply for a portion of the more than $1 billion that is being provided to the state from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for flood mitigation projects. Stephen Costello, Houston's chief resilience officer, said the city has submitted notices of intent for 15 proposed projects and 14 have been approved. The city is finalizing its applications.

City officials also refuted the claim they've spent little of the $50 million provided by the state. Turner also said that money was a grant, not a loan as the state says.

Matthews said using the rainy day fund for flood mitigation projects that have not been finalized could compromise the state's ability to deal with other budget priorities, such as school funding.

"The state has and will continue to spend money to help local governments respond to Hurricane Harvey," Matthews said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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