Flood of money, floods of water

Council learns that the government giveth and taketh away

The government giveth, and the government taketh away. That was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the Chico City Council meeting Tuesday (April 7).

The “giveth” part concerned federal community-development and housing funds and stimulus funding, all of which promised to swell the city’s coffers.

The “taketh” part had to do with the city’s almost frantic effort to avoid having local levees decertified, which would require anyone with a mortgage to buy expensive flood insurance. The total cost to the estimated 25,000 homeowners could be as much as $12.5 million, reported Building and Development Services Director Fritz McKinley.

Let’s talk levees first, since that’s what most concerns the thousands of local homeowners, who each could find themselves having to come up with as much as $1,500 annually in additional insurance costs.

The levees at issue here are along Mud and Sycamore creeks. The problem stems from a refusal earlier this year on the part of Butte County, which maintains the levees, and the state Department of Water Resources, which owns them, to certify them to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards.

As a result, FEMA will be issuing new flood maps in May that will show the levees as non-existent, meaning the homes they now protect—much of Chico—technically will be vulnerable to flooding, even though for more than 50 years they’ve been perfectly safe.

FEMA’s mapping process is moving forward “like a machine,” McKinley said, noting that cities up and down California are going through the same process, and there’s no stalling it.

The good news, he said, is that the city can apply for a “provisionally accredited levee designation and agreement,” or PAL, which gives the city two years to certify the levees or prove their soundness. “It stops the clock,” he said.

McKinley was confident that he could convince FEMA that the levees are sound. The Army Corps of Engineers built them to federal specifications and they have been diligently maintained, he explained, and the city has complete records showing so.

There was much discussion of why FEMA was foisting this problem on California’s cities. As a clearly angered Councilman Scott Gruendl expressed it, “This defies the very law of disaster mitigation. It absolves the federal agency of responsibility and transfers it to the homeowner. I call it the ‘Bury and Screw Act.’ ”

Addressing the council, county Supervisor Maureen Kirk had her own name for it: “the FEMA Anti-Stimulus Act.” She said the reason the county didn’t certify the levees was because of the estimated cost—about $300,000 per lineal mile. She pledged the county’s cooperation in working for resolution.

Complicating the matter was that the earlier homeowners purchased insurance, the cheaper the cost. That puts pressure on local officials to reach finality on the issue as soon as possible.

Jason Bougie, director of the Butte Community Builders Association, told the council, “I can’t communicate our panic enough to you guys. … Our outlook is pretty bleak.” If the developable land in Chico is declared to be in a flood plain, all new homes will have to be elevated by about a foot or put on stilts, he said.

The council asked City Manager Dave Burkland to seek help from Rep. Wally Herger and invite a FEMA representative to its next meeting, on April 21, when it will approve the PAL application.

Speaking of floods, a flood of money is coming Chico’s way from the federal government—this is the “giveth” part of the story—and more could come in the future.

The council spent some time hearing about the city’s “draft action plan” for spending its annual federal Community Development Block Grant and Housing Investment Partnership funds—an estimated $3.3 million—much as it has in the past, on such things as housing rehab, code enforcement, rental housing accessibility, sewer hookup subsidies, infrastructure improvements, mortgage subsidies, affordable housing construction, and so forth. Public hearings will be held to come up with a final action plan, said Sherry Morgado, director of Housing and Neighborhood Services.

In addition, Catalyst Domestic Violence Services will receive nearly $240,000 in carryover funds to augment the $1 million in state bond funding to build a new residential shelter.

In addition, Burkland discussed the myriad projects for which the city is seeking federal stimulus funds. The whole stimulus arena is still murky, he said, so much time is being spent just figuring out where the money is and what it’s for so the city can make appropriate applications.

So far the only money it knows it will receive is $5.5 million for widening the Skyway/Highway 99 interchange, along with a couple of smaller grants, but Burkland said he’s confident more will be forthcoming in the future.