Landrieu says hurricane relief arbitration panel coming within weeks


U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said she expects Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to announce within two weeks a new, final arbitration process for lingering disputes over federal payments for public buildings damaged in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Hundreds of projects across the Gulf Coast are affected, but the largest price tag — and perhaps the most intense dispute — comes from Charity Hospital. The Federal Emergency Management Agency remains opposed to the state’s request for $492 million that accounts for more than 40 percent of the construction budget for a replacement medical complex.

Landrieu, who sponsored the arbitration amendment in the federal economic stimulus bill in part because of the Charity case, did not divulge all the details of the new group. But she said it would comprise experts who are independent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which remains an arm of Napolitano’s department.

The senator’s amendment, worded generally, requires that the Obama administration establish an “arbitration panel” to hear Public Assistance disputes from Hurricane Katrina or Rita for projects with a price tag of at least $500,000.

The law states: “The arbitration panel shall have sufficient authority regarding the award or denial of disputed public assistance applications for covered hurricane damage under section 403, 406, or 407 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.” No other details are included, giving discretion to the administration.

FEMA’s Public Assistance Program compensates local and state governments, along with non-profit entities, for expenses and damages related to federally declared disasters.

The senator said it is her understanding that arbitrators would have immediate jurisdiction over any Katrina or Rita disputes, regardless of where a particular project may be in the existing appeals process.

FEMA’s regional office in Texas recently rejected the state’s appeal of the agency’s $150 million offer for Charity. Under existing procedures, the next step would be hearings in front of FEMA officials in Washington, D.C. Louisiana officials have throughout the Charity dispute criticized the Stafford Act appeals process as unfair because it amounts to an agency reviewing its own decisions.

Landrieu declined to offer a time frame for when the Charity question could be settled.

In the mean time, she said she has no immediate plans to ask Congress for money to finance the hospital. Settling the Public Assistance amount, she said, will allow the state to finalize its construction budget. At that point, Landrieu said she would consider the federal appropriations process as an option should the state need additional money.


~ by vermilionaire on June 5, 2009.

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