West Virginia to get grant for infrastructure projects

CHARLESTON — More details have been released about a new round of federal grant dollars awarded to West Virginia to help with flood mitigation and infrastructure projects.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Friday a Federal Register notice could be published within the next two weeks for a $106 million grant for the new Community Development Block Grant-Mitigation program.

Once the Federal Register, which will lay out the rules for the new program, is published, West Virginia can start working on its action plan on how best to spend the money.

West Virginia is one of nine states that will receive the first round of CDBG-Mitigation grants, followed by a second round for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The total amount for the grant program is $16 billion.

During a background briefing by conference call Friday, senior officials with HUD said they were excited about the new program. Reporters were not allowed to identify the officials.

“That’s a lot of money, but it’s really focused on future events,” one senior official said. “Making sure that states are carefully planning for future disasters, and how they can limit not just property damage, but loss of life. We wanted folks to think really big. We wanted them to come up with great projects.”

HUD manages the CDBG-Disaster Recovery program. West Virginia was awarded more than $149 million through the disaster recovery program for the 2016 flood. The state Commerce Department was given spending approval by HUD in February 2018, but shortly afterward the program was paused due to illegal contract issues with the vendor managing the grant program, as well as issues with construction contracts entered into before HUD approval.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson cited recent political instability in Puerto Rico, which was rocked by Hurricane Maria in 2017, as the reason why the mitigation grant was being distributed in two phases.

“Recovery efforts in jurisdictions prepared to do their part should not be held back due to alleged corruption, fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement occurring in Puerto Rico and capacity issues in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Carson said in a statement. “Untangling these funds from each other will help recovery and planning move forward in communities capable of properly and prudently disbursing funds, all the while protecting taxpayers who are footing the bill.”

According to the senior HUD officials, the CDBG-Mitigation grants can be used to protect river banks, home elevation in floodplains, improvements to roads and bridges, and electrical grid resiliency. The grant funding can be used for any presidentially declared disaster in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

HUD is also working with other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Because it’s new, it’s a process. We wanted to work very closely with some of our federal partners. We want synergy between all their efforts,” one official said. “For example, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation program and our program. We want them both to be in sync so we get the maximum bang for the taxpayer dollar.”

State officials have wanted to use some of the $149 million in the disaster recovery grant for infrastructure projects. According to West Virginia MetroNews, officials as far back as November 2017 had proposed shifting some of the grant money away from housing needs to infrastructure. HUD told state officials then that the housing needs would need to be met first before diverting money.

During Friday’s briefing, senior HUD officials said the new $106 million mitigation grant would free the state to submit a plan dealing with infrastructure projects as long as they met HUD’s parameters.

“The mitigation aspect of this is new to HUD,” one senior HUD official said. “Typically, money is allocated to use for unmet need for folks who don’t have insurance and need to have their homes rebuilt. We’ve allowed states in the past to use their disaster recovery money on mitigation projects, but this is the first time money has been specifically allocated for mitigation projects.”

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is the subcommittee chair on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She said the mitigation grant is needed as the state continues to recover from flooding over the last few years.

“Our state is still working to recover from the devastating floods that impacted Southern West Virginia three years ago and also focusing on ways to avoid a similar tragedy in the future,” Capito said. “With today’s announcement, we can now move forward with both the recovery and mitigation process, and it’s important that we plan and use these critical dollars diligently, deliberately, and in a way that will most effectively protect us in the future.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., released a statement in April after HUD first announced the release of the $106 million grant.

“I appreciate Secretary Carson’s commitment to deliver this $106 million that West Virginia desperately needs,” Manchin said in April. “I commend Secretary Carson for his help resolving this situation, and I remain committed to ensuring that this funding makes it to the West Virginia communities and families that need it most.”

A request for comment from the Governor’s Office was not returned.

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