CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Department of Commerce has to remain responsible for long-term flood relief funds because of a federal agreement and state law.
Now, though, the adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard has been given ultimate authority for making sure long-term flood relief is successful.
How that structure is going to work is still anyone’s guess.
“There are some things that we have to sort out related to how we do sign-off and the flow of money. We’ll figure it out,” Gen. James Hoyer, the governor’s pick to lead long-term recovery, said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Hoyer described cooperating with the Department of Commerce and its secretary, Woody Thrasher.
“We’ll continue to work with Secretary Thrasher,” Hoyer said. “We owe it to the people of West Virginia to make this thing work.”
Other important entities will also be watching with interest.
The funding available for long-term flood relief is about $150 million in Community Development Block Grants for disaster relief issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Housing and Urban Development reviewed and signed off on an action plan for how the state will administer the funds.
The action plan is not just a suggestion.
Here is exactly what it says about who is to administer the federal dollars:
The State’s Department of Commerce has been designated by Governor Jim Justice as West Virginia’s responsible entity and lead agency for administering the 2016 CDBG-DR Award. Secretary H. Wood Thrasher was appointed by Governor Justice to serve as the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and in this role, he answers directly to the Office of the Governor. The West Virginia Development Office , an agency within WVDOC, will be responsible for the implementation and oversight of all program activities stemming from the 2016 CDBG-DR Award.
That designation could be changed through a process, a Housing and Urban Development spokesman said this week.
Or the governor could put Hoyer in Commerce.
But the setup that’s already in the agreement can’t just be ignored.
“If General Hoyer is going to be leading the recovery efforts from within the Department of Commerce, that’s one thing,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for Housing and Urban Development.
“If they’re designating another entity to administer the program, there’s a process for doing that. And it’s a process they’d have to go through.”
In response to earlier questions from HUD, the State of West Virginia sent an April 6 letter that said there would be no change in responsibility from Commerce administering the $150 million.
“Please be advised that West Virginia has not considered shifting the administration of the funding to another agency, so we are puzzled by your reference to the ‘uncertainty’ as to which agency will be responsible for CDBG-DR grant,” wrote Brian Abraham, general counsel for the Governor’s Office.
“If they do intend to shift from the Department of Commerce to any other agency, no matter who it is led by, that would be news to us,” HUD’s Sullivan said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon.
Governor Justice made some references to this tricky balance during a Monday news conference in which he responded to concerns about the RISE West Virginia program administered by Commerce.
“Without any question whatsoever, there needs to be realignment within the Commerce Department,” Justice said. “There absolutely are pitfalls that have happened within Commerce.”
The governor has not elaborated on what that realignment would be like or its timetable. The governor hinted strongly at firings and a Monday afternoon news release from the Governor’s Office specifically mentioned terminations.
It directed reporters with questions about Commerce to ask the National Guard:
“Gov. Jim Justice said today a realignment at the West Virginia Department of Commerce is now underway, there will be terminations, and therefore until that process is completed all media requests for information are to be directed to Major General James Hoyer.”
In his press conference remarks, Justice alluded to Hoyer working with Commerce.
And, in response to a reporter’s question about who would administer the grant money, Justice specified Commerce.
“My opinion is it was placed in Commerce by the Tomblin administration. I really believe it is best to stay in Commerce because of all the grant funding that needs to stay in place there,” he said. “But it sure as a dickens needs to be run a whole lot better.”
Asked more about the structure ahead, Justice was not ready to elaborate.
“I think we’ll have to feel our way there,” he said. “General Hoyer will be working with the Commerce people, but until we get the realignment in place we want to move and get stuff going just as fast as we possibly can.”
State law, set up to reflect the arrangement with HUD, also points toward Commerce handling long-term flood relief duties.
A bill that passed in 2017 created the state Resiliency Office within the Development Office in the Department of Commerce.
It also established a State Resiliency Office Board consisting of the state Commerce Secretary, the director of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Secretary, the executive director of the State Conservation Agency; the secretary of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety; state Transportation Secretary; the Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard; and the director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The Commerce Secretary is the designated chairman and is to report quarterly and annually to a Joint Flood Committee of the Legislature.
Among the duties of the Resiliency Office is to monitor federal funds and initiatives that become available for disaster recovery and economic and community resiliency.
Placing responsibility with Hoyer may wind up being a bureaucratic balancing act, but House Speaker Tim Armstead offered a public vote of confidence.
I support the Governor’s move to place RISE WV under the direction of General Hoyer. General Hoyer has always been very helpful in the flood recovery effort. Now let’s get the people who were flooded the help they need as soon as possible.
— Tim Armstead (@ArmsteadWV) June 5, 2018