House speaker wants federal money to tackle blight

AP News
Posted: Nov 13, 2009 10:34 AM

Federal recovery money that remains unused since hurricanes Katrina and Rita should be spent on blight remediation and infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, House Speaker Jim Tucker said Thursday.

Congress appropriated $13.4 billion in flexible block grant aid for Louisiana's recovery from the two storms.

Tucker, R-Terrytown, estimated that as much as $1 billion won't be used in the programs for which it's allocated. He wants that money split evenly between a blight program to help tear down abandoned, flood-damaged properties and a repair program to help rebuild roads and city infrastructure.

Tucker pitched his idea to the Louisiana Recovery Authority board of directors, which is expected to debate the proposals at its meeting next month.

The LRA doesn't yet have an official estimate of money available for reallocation, but Tucker's plans are expected to run into competition for the dollars.

Local officials and advocacy groups have already lodged requests with the board for unspent dollars. Among the proposals: help build a new public hospital in New Orleans, help homeowners repair homes with contaminated Chinese drywall, fund business ventures in hurricane-damaged areas or address lingering recovery needs around south Louisiana, rather than just New Orleans.

But the speaker argued that the thousands of abandoned properties in New Orleans must be torn down to help fight crime, and that the infrastructure must be repaired for the city to recover.

"I'm very fearful that we'll end up being like Detroit," Tucker said. "We can't afford another wave of people leaving the city."

State lawmakers asked for a report about unspent Katrina and Rita block grant aid by Sept. 30, but LRA officials said they couldn't meet that deadline. Instead, they said they expected to have a better idea in December of what money would be available for reallocation.

A reallocation of some of the block grant funds would require approval from federal officials who oversee the spending, Tucker said. Reallocating certain parts of the money would require congressional approval.