Friday, December 7, 2007

Road Home program now solvent

Gov. Kathleen Blanco and members of Louisiana Recovery Authority this afternoon announced that updated budget estimates for the Road Home program show the state has all the money it needs to pay eligible applicants, according to a news release.

Based on new projections, the state will not have to seek new funds from Congress to ensure that every eligible homeowner receives their full hurricane-recovery grant award from the Road Home.

The new figures are based on the estimated number of eligible applicants, who had to schedule appointments with the program by Dec. 1. To cover a massive shortfall, the state committed $1 billion and secured $3 billion from Congress.

"At last, the moment we have all been hoping for," Blanco is quoted as saying in the release. "We can finally say with confidence that the Road Home is running in the black. After making nine trips to Capitol Hill over the last two years to fight for Louisianas fair share, it's a tremendous relief to know we now have the funds we need to assist all eligible homeowners."

District gets FEMA to drop nit-picking

For Recovery School District officials, the $620 fund for 155 glitter packets, the $94,469.05 fund for 2,907 puppets, and the $2,362.85 for 215 magazine holders might have come in handy down the road. But they weren't worth the million-dollar accounting headache.

As the district opened dozens of schools during the past year and a half, it moved quickly to restock them with supplies and furniture. But getting the money back from FEMA seemed like it would be anything but quick. Under the old accounting system, the school district would have had to match items for items to get FEMA reimbursement: 1,000 lost pencils at one school would get the school 1,000 new ones.

A theoretical lost copy of the preschool text "There's a Nightmare in My Closet" would have forced the school to buy a new copy of "There's a Nightmare in My Closet" for $18.92. But that money could not go toward a copy of "I've Got Chicken Pox," another early years classic.

At one point, "we would have had a fund for Wet Vacs," said Ramsey Green, the district's budget director.

What's a Wet Vac?

"I would have to Google search 'Wet Vac,' " he replied.

To help ease the load of such questions, the recovery district and FEMA have now settled on a new, streamlined accounting approach that likely will be used as a model for other school systems trying to recoup money for contents destroyed by the storm. To avoid getting mired in minutia, FEMA will grant the district allotments in four broad categories, each with a capped dollar value: publications, information technology, furniture and school equipment.

"This is unique," said John Connolly, FEMA's chief of public assistance projects on the Gulf Coast. "The RSD has helped broker a process that can be extended to other schools in Louisiana going forward."

The agreement marks a rare example of loosening up typically rigid federal policy, officials said.

"This recovery gets a lot of flak for being overly bureaucratic," Green said, "and this is an example of some people putting their heads together and coming up with a solution to a pretty difficult problem."

St. Bernard Parish also will seek reimbursement under the new process, Connolly said.

Ultimately, the new system was hammered out by a few district staffers in a coffee shop over three days, but only after months of negotiations with FEMA.

"(FEMA) had a mindset about how they wanted to negotiate it," said State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, who helped broker the agreement between FEMA and the recovery district. "That mindset is born of how they've always done it."

But counting lost pencils and books on a line-item basis would have been "impossible," Pastorek said. To say nothing of another nightmarish prospect: "My perception, at least, was that if we had 27 20-year-old desks, we were going to have to go out and get 27 20-year-old desks."

The policy change came only after FEMA made a series of earlier concessions that aimed to simplify the process -- but didn't.

At first, FEMA agreed to establish costs for items that would be used to equip, say, a standard library or high school biology lab. After that process, FEMA identified 5,000 different line items for which schools could seek reimbursement.

But that limited the system to a theoretical list that may or may not include the items it actually needed.

"It's like FEMA was telling us what we were supposed to buy," Green said.

From 5,000, officials whittled the list down to 500 more general categories. Then, at the coffee shop, Green and others came up with just four broad categories for the recovery district's restocking expenses.

Because the four categories are broad, the district also will have more flexibility in how it restocks classrooms. Officials could, for example, purchase technology such as a Promethean Board, a touch-sensitive screen that acts as an interactive whiteboard, to replace a destroyed chalkboard.

The district will get back about $50 million of the more than $77 million that it lost in classroom and building supplies. It already has collected most of the $50 million from FEMA. Previously, district officials had worried about losing the money from its federal Restart funds, a more limited pool of federal recovery aid.

State and district officials said the item-for-item approach would have cost millions of dollars in accounting and auditing fees -- not to mention the sanity of those involved.

"We went from a point of having to buy eraser for eraser to now just having $25 million for school equipment and supplies," Green said, referring to one of the four newly designated categories.

"We got rid of a huge amount of paperwork."