Government shutdown puts millions of North Bay disaster dollars in limbo

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Tens of millions of dollars meant to help Sonoma County and Santa Rosa recover from the October 2017 wildfires and prepare for future disasters is in limbo as the federal government shutdown continues with no end in sight.

Of particular concern to Santa Rosa is the roughly $38.5 million the city expects to receive in federal grants to build apartments after fires wiped out 5 percent of its housing stock. Meanwhile, Sonoma County has submitted at least 20 different requests for roughly $24 million to fund fire-hardening work, seismic retrofitting and other disaster mitigation projects.

That’s all been delayed as a result of the ongoing federal government shutdown, 20 days old Thursday and still going strong. With President Donald Trump threatening to yank wildfire relief funds from California and abruptly walking out of negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the shutdown brings plenty of uncertainty for local officials hoping to receive long-awaited disaster funding.

“The longer it goes, obviously the more difficult it becomes for everyone,” said David Rabbitt, who chairs the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “There’s people that start to get a little anxious, and rightfully so.”

The shutdown means uncertain prospects for numerous wildfire-related funding requests into which the city and county have invested months of work.

Santa Rosa expects $38.5 million in federal disaster relief money to build apartments as part of a $124 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to disaster-afflicted parts of California.

But the shutdown has delayed HUD’s review of that offering, said city spokeswoman Adriane Mertens. It was unclear how much longer the city will have to wait for the money as a result of the shutdown.

Mertens noted the California Department of Housing and Community Development had indicated HUD would approve the state’s plan by Feb. 1.

“The city expected funds would be received sometime in the spring, but obviously the timing is unknown at this point,” she said.

Santa Rosa anticipates delayed reimbursement for at least three programs through which HUD reimburses cities like Santa Rosa for expenses, including the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program, Mertens said. However, the shutdown would only have an impact on these programs if it continues into April.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also delayed its review of numerous public assistance projects for which the city wants reimbursement, Mertens said. It was unclear whether the holdup was related to the recent holidays or the shutdown, and the city expected clarity on Monday, she said.

For Sonoma County’s disaster efforts, the shutdown means “a delay in implementation in some really important projects that we have in the works,” said deputy county administrator Michael Gossner, who heads the county’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Partial county data reflected 20 requests to FEMA for hazard mitigation projects totaling upward of $25 million. Gossner said the county faced the potential for those requests to be delayed, as well as delays to $2 million in FEMA public assistance requests and the allocation of several million dollars through the county’s portion of HUD’s disaster recovery grant offering.

Employers like Santa Rosa and Sonoma County also are not able to use the federal E-Verify system — meant to prevent undocumented immigrants from illegally working in the U.S. — because of the lapse in funding for the Department of Homeland Security. Mertens said the city could continue to hire workers but would not be able to run the E-Verify background check until funding is restored.

The shutdown could mean potential local impacts to funding for federal rental assistance and food benefits. Money for those programs is anticipated to last through February, but it’s uncertain whether funding will be available past then.

It was unclear Wednesday whether Trump could or would make good on his pledge to cut off FEMA funding to California, a threat he has made previously without follow-through.

Rabbitt questioned whether Trump could legally shut off wildfire relief funding via FEMA. Mertens said city officials “haven’t received any information on what (the president’s threat) might mean.”

A call and email sent Wednesday to FEMA’s press office seeking clarification or context for the president’s remark resulted in automated messages explaining that the agency couldn’t return reporters’ inquiries due to the shutdown. A call to the White House switchboard also proved fruitless because of the lack of federal funds.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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