The State Legislature meets at 2 p.m. Friday in special session to consider the Gov. Mark Dayton’s recommendation to spend $190 million in disaster relief for the June flooding that occurred in the Duluth area. In working group meetings several legislators have already raised questions about the amount of the Dayton’s request and the purpose of some of the funding.
Before lawmakers head back to the Capitol to appropriate tens of millions of dollars in aid to Duluth area residents, they should first read a recent report from the State Office of the Legislative Auditor entitled “Helping Communities Recover from Natural Disasters.”
Like most Legislative Auditor reports the study is chock full of facts and figures as well as key recommendations that could resolve many shortcomings in the funding process. The report covers 32 natural disasters that have occurred in Minnesota over the past 15 years. A total funding of $488 million has been spent in that time frame to help local communities in disaster relief. The OLA outlines how federal disaster declarations are made and what happens if there is no assistance from the federal government. In the last 20 years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided funding to repair and replace public property and buildings on 29 separate occasions. But in only 12 of those situations has FEMA provided assistance to individual homeowners.
There are several key findings in the report but the most striking is that, “Minnesota has insufficient criteria for activating state recovery programs following natural disasters.”
Simply put, the process is a hodge-podge of state and local government programs as well as non-profit agencies working to provide disaster relief services. For large disasters the state designates more than a dozen state agencies to activate a variety of programs to help local communities. The report highlights the fact that, “When communities and individuals are dealing with devastating losses due to a recent disaster the complexity of recovery programs can be especially burdensome.”
Another recommendation contained in the study is for the “legislature to set clear criteria for determining the level of state funding provided to local jurisdictions.”
This recommendation is based on recent legislative decisions to pay the entire amount required to match federal recovery aid for public infrastructure. This action increases state costs and in many cases requires no local share, in turn raising expectations by local officials that the state will always pick up the entire tab for the local required match.
The report also points to a lack of coordination with non-profits that often provide assistance in emergencies. The number of non-profits providing assistance during natural disasters are numerous, from local churches to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Not to coordinate with these groups or measure the monetary value of their contributions is foolish.
One more shortcoming the report points out is the lack of inadequate follow-up to measure the results of state and federal programs.
“The overall effectiveness of the state’s approach toward disaster recovery is unknown because no state agency routinely assesses the effectiveness across programs,” the report said.
In other words, the state spends hundreds of millions to aid individuals and communities after a natural disaster but fails to follow-up to find out if the programs achieved the intended results. No one asks the questions: was the money used properly or did it help the right people? The report concludes that there are, “Gaps in funding information that prevent measuring the cost effectiveness and a full accounting for state spending on each disaster.”
The Legislative Auditor’s Report makes a clear case that the legislative process for funding of natural disasters is a “disaster.” Therefore, before the lawmakers dish out another $200 million of taxpayer money claiming to come to the rescue of cities and citizens with washed out roads and flooded basements, they should first implement the key recommendations in the OLA report, which are:
- One, determine under what circumstances state funding should be made available.
- Two, set explicit criteria for what share of local cost the state will fund.
- Three, institute mechanisms to evaluate recovery activities and spending.
- Four, develop plans to expand and improve coordination with non-profits.
Even in your desire to help others you need to include accountability.
Phil Krinkie is a former state legislator, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and a businessman. Contact him at www.taxpayersleague.org.