Roving Reporter | NOTES: Town Hall Meeting 12/21/17 | by Wendy Laubach

Wendy Laubach created these notes from the 12/21/17 Town Hall meeting on Harvey recovery and rebuilding. Great job! Shared with permission. -- Jeanette

An Aransas County Recovery Effort Town Hall Meeting was held on Thursday, December 21, at 6pm at the Aquarium Education Center. Michael Koerner, the county’s recently hired long-term recovery coordinator, arranged for the meeting to be videotaped and posted here on Facebook at …. Here’s a summary of the information Mr. Koerner provided to the public.

First, some of the information below is addressed more generally at the Aransas County Harvey Recovery website here: At this website you can find contact information, updates on issues like debris removal and burn bans, checklists for places to register for assistance, and answers to questions about the scope of duties of Koerner’s organization.

Debris Removal. Mr. Koerner asked us to remember that the free debris removal service is limited to storm debris, i.e., tree and brush clean-up and structure demolition debris. Crowder-Gulf won’t pick up ordinary household trash or ordinary ongoing yard-pruning debris, for fear of jeopardizing the cost-sharing agreement under which FEMA is paying for 90% of the county’s trash pickup expenses. But if you’re still clearing out damaged trees or brush, go ahead and keep dragging them into the right-of-way for free removal. Ordinary household trash and maintenance yard debris, however, should be hauled to the transfer station at 872 Airport Dr. That’s still free for homeowners this month, but starting on January 2, we go back to the usual price schedule, which is 6 cents a pound for trash paid via cash (7 cents for payment by check), and 3 cents a pound for brush. The transfer station will be closed from December 24-27 for Christmas.

The special roadside debris removal will continue for some months yet; the county understands that some people haven’t even started demolition work, in many cases because they’re still waiting on insurance proceeds. The plan is definitely for Crowder-Gulf to continue picking up brush and demo debris as this process continues. We will get at least five weeks’ notice of the eventual date for completing the roadside debris pickup service.

Governor Abbott recently announced that the state would cover the county’s expected bill for its 10% share of the debris removal, in the amount of about $4 million (out of a total of about $90 million allocated to six coastal counties). The county already has received a payment of $600,000. The county’s subcontractor has removed 2.5 million cubic yards of debris to date. That’s enough to cover 83 acres 20 feet deep. Koerner estimated that there is another half-million cubic yards still to be picked up.

The first debris-pickup program was limited to whatever could be dragged out to the nearest public right of way. The next step was FEMA’s approval of a program to drive into private communities. The third step, which is in its first stages, is to obtain FEMA’s approval of a program to let debris-haulers drive onto individual properties. Koerner’s office is encouraging individual county residents to sign up now for this third project, so that we’ll be ready to go if and when we get FEMA approval. There is a registration form on the Aransas County Harvey Recovery website.

There was some preliminary discussion of possible public action to demolish abandoned storm-damaged properties.

Counseling. 800-985-5990 will take you to a 24/7 crisis hotline set up for storm survivors. There also is a text service at 66746. AIM Hospice also is offering free counseling.

Long-Term Plan. Koerner explained that he was hired for a five-year storm recovery plan. His staff includes personnel to address donations of cash and material as well as coordination with volunteer groups and public assistance at the local, state, and federal levels. He will be working on medium- and long-term housing, economic development, and repair of the tourism infrastructure. He will coordinate with FEMA directly and through its state agent, the Texas General Land Office (GLO), as well as with the Commissioners Court, the mayors of Rockport and Fulton, and the heads of city and county departments, especially David Reed of the County Roads & Bridges Department. He and his staff are preparing a Long-term Recovery Plan, for which he expects to obtain approval in January 2018, at which time it will be posted on the website. He will be investigating sources for assistance both to local government and to individual county residents. Part of his task is to find sources to help fund the county’s extraordinary storm expenses, so they will not have to be passed through to county residences in the form of taxes. The county is acutely aware that its expected revenues from sales tax and ad valorem tax have taken a hit. Koerner is pursuing a number of possibilities for grants that are aimed at bridging the gap between historic levels of tax revenue and the temporarily lower revenues resulting from a disaster. The county has a full year of hotel-occupancy tax (HOT) revenues in reserve and is using them to continue to fund the county’s non-profit organizations at their pre-storm levels.

Koerner’s highest priority at present is housing: both to ensure livable conditions for residents and to re-open guest accommodations to support the tourism business that fuels such a large part of the local economy. Koerner has been participating in local workshops, “facilitated focus groups,” and recovery fairs in an effort to collect information about local needs, so that he can pass information on to various agencies such as FEMA and the GLO, as well as to elected officials, including the Governor and our state and federal senators and representatives. (Information about a workshop recently conducted by the Chamber of Commerce can be found at the Chamber’s website.) His next highest priority will be to focus on rebuilding and restoring our roads, bays, and bulkheads. The bulkhead issue, particularly insofar as it relates to bulkheads on private property such as in Copano Cove and Copano Ridge, continues to be a thorny issue, but Koerner is systematically investigating a number of public and private possibilities for funding. The County Commissioners recently approved a resolution intended to bolster the argument that the county needs outside funding to address safety hazards in its canals and other waterways. Much of the availability of public assistance to the county depends on the Governor’s continuing to extend our disaster declaration at 30-day intervals. The presence of a continuing declaration also streamlines certain procurement procedures such as the requirement for a minimum number of bids. The Governor clearly intends to continue the disaster declarations in this area for the time being.

Traffic and Safety. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is responsible for replacing signs on the state and county roads, as well as many or most Fulton signs, while the city of Rockport will replace its own signs. First priority will be given to safety signs (such as stop and yield signs) before they turn their attention to direction signs (such as street-name signs). The TxDOT contracts have been awarded, but it is not certain yet when that work will begin.

It is not clear when funding will become available to replace the street lighting in Copano Cove and Copano Ridge; all that is known to date is that AEP will do the work. A resident suggested that the new lights should be of the “low-spread” type that are more wildlife-friendly. Koerner explained that public lighting might be part of a sort of funding known as “hazard mitigation,” which is aimed at longer-term recovery than immediate storm-damage repair and therefore comes out of different funding pots, thus possibly expanding the potential sources for help. Other long-term hazard-mitigation projects might include improvements to flood control such as culverts and ditches.

Individual Assistance. Koerner took a number of questions about the use of money and material donated to the county via the Chamber of Commerce, and/or through celebrities such as George Strait and churches, such as the Mormon communities that sent construction materials from Utah. The materials donated by Utah churches are still locked up safely at the airport. Koerner emphasized that none of this material had been used yet, and that none of it had been or would be diverted to other counties. He specifically denied a rumor that any of the materials would be sent to Victoria

The $1.2 million in funds collected by the Chamber of Commerce has been delivered to the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group, which expects to begin distributing it in the coming months. CBDRG administers assistance for 11 storm-damaged counties, including Aransas County. In the near future, case managers from CBDRG should be making contact with everyone who previously signed up with FEMA and SBA. Funds and volunteer assistance already have been dispensed to many local residents; just last week, 171 volunteers assisted in working on 63 pending help requests. Aransas County residents who want to request help from the CBDRG need to fill out a form granting permission for their workers to come onto private property, and holding them harmless for damage.

The George Strait funds were donated to the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, part of a total of about $100 million earmarked for the Rockport and Port Aransas areas. The Dell Foundation, which is devoted to education, housing, general philanthropy, and economic development, is in the early stages of identifying area projects in the $1-2 million range that are considered by locals to have a high impact. In Port Aransas, for instance, residents expressed a wish to rebuild a high-profile track and field facility.

A resident expressed frustration with his continuing lack of adequate housing. He still has no plumbing and depends on a generator that he can ill afford to operate. Koerner explained the process to obtaining relief from public and private sources. The process starts with registering with FEMA and the SBA. These registrations, even if they don’t result in any direct assistance, trigger eligibility for the CBDRG “unmet needs” system.

Concerns were raised about nursing homes residents who were relocated to facilities in other counties, sometimes at considerable personal expense. Koerner’s staff offered to help look into this issue, perhaps through the state agency that oversees nursing homes.

In response to questions about price-gouging, Koerner referred residents to the Texas Attorney General Consumer Protection and Fraud Divisions, which is highly focused on this problem at present.

Public Funds. FEMA has turned over about $5 million in Harvey relief to the Texas state government for direct application to storm recovery programs. The money is stuck in Austin at present, pending publication in the Federal Register of a set of rules that will govern the eligibility of various programs; this process should be complete by the end of the year.

Insurance Disputes. TWIA came in for some complaints. Koerner acknowledged the impact of delays in receiving insurance proceeds, and reported that our local state senators and representatives (Morrison, Kolkhorst, and Hunter) met with TWIA a few days ago on this issue. The offices of these elected officials want to hear from local residents who are frustrated in their dealings with TWIA. Gov. Abbott also recently announced that he had asked the Texas Insurance Commission to turn up the heat.

The next Town Hall Meeting will be held in February 2018.

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