City government

City won’t meet deadline to spend $2 billion on Katrina roadwork funds, Cantrell administrator says

New Orleans will not spend all of the $2 billion the federal government has allocated for road and pipe repairs after Hurricane Katrina by the August 2023 federal deadline, the deputy chief executive of the Department of Public Health said Thursday. city ​​infrastructure, Joe Threat, to city council.

Threat said the administration is now relying on the federal government to approve an extension of the deadline or the city will lose whatever is not spent when the deadline arrives. As The Lens reported earlier this month, the city has only spent between 25% and 50% of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, which means there are far more left. a billion dollars.

The city and its contractors have expressed concerns about the deadline in the past, but officials told council earlier this year that the plan still had to try to finish before the August deadline. But now, Threat said, the city is focused on complementing the multitude of open and stagnant roadworks projects which caused headaches for residents across the city, rather than rushing to spend all the money before the expiration date.

“The first priority is to shut down the work we have on the streets right now,” Threat said.

All was not bleak at Thursday’s public works committee meeting. Threat said he thinks the city has a good case to convince the federal government it deserves an extension.

“I think we’ll have enough with our pandemic, everything we’ve been through here in the city, Hurricane Ida, Zeta, Barry, Laura. You name it. I think we have a good case for getting an extension.

And council members expressed optimism about changes planned by Threat to make the roadworks program more efficient and less burdensome for residents. The new approach coincides with Threat’s recent promotion to assistant CAO after the position was vacated by Ramsey Green.

“It’s also my city,” Threat said. “My car is in the shop after driving over potholes. And it’s something we need to fix and we owe it to the residents to fix it. So I took on the challenge when the mayor told me asked to intervene.

“I’m thrilled to hear of the progress,” Councilwoman Lesli Harris said. “I am delighted to work with you.”

Katrina dollars — the majority of which were awarded to the city in 2015 — are the central source of funding for the city’s approximately $2 billion Joint Infrastructure Recovery Request (JIRR) program, which aims to repair underground pipes in sewer and water and to replace the pothole. -congested streets above them.

Although Threat is new to the position of deputy general manager, he has worked on the JIRR program since Mayor LaToya Cantrell took office in 2018. He said the Cantrell administration was immediately put in a difficult position due to the slow progress under the previous mayor. , Mitch Landrieu. Cantrell claimed that when she took office, the city only had $10 million worth of JIRR projects underway.

“When I got here and went into administration, we were already two years behind the power curve,” Threat said. “JIRR is a difficult and complex problem. I don’t think there are many cities in the United States that have had $2 billion worth of street and road construction at a time.

Faced with the August 2023 deadline, Threat said the administration’s initial goal was to push forward as much work as possible. However, this has inadvertently caused a new problem – the proliferation of partially completed open jobs that sit pending for months without any noticeable progress.

“Really, it was my job and Ramsey’s job to put money on the street and try to spend those funds,” Threat said. “Now we see the problem of putting all the money on the street at once. We have pushed entrepreneurs to full capacity.

He said the current projects are part of “waves one and two” of the JIRR program.

“The only remedy at this point is time out, let’s not do that anymore, let’s finish waves one and two and close those quarters, then have a strategy… moving forward with the third, fourth and fifth waves that we have scheduled right now .”

One of the reasons for construction stagnation that has been repeatedly cited by the city and contractors is that once construction crews dig a street, they often find additional problems that weren’t part of the initial scope of the project. Contractors have complained that it can take months for the city to review and approve change orders.

Threat said the Department of Public Works is setting up a team specifically to deal with change orders. And he said he was putting a two-week pause on construction to finalize all existing change orders. Additionally, he said DPW would launch a public bid to hire a program manager to oversee the entire JIRR program.

The Lens recently raised concerns from former employees about the management of the program. The New Orleans Inspector General’s Office has confirmed that it will soon release a report on the program. And emails obtained by The Lens show that a former city employee involved in the JIRR program was interviewed by an investigator from FEMA’s Fraud Prevention and Investigations branch and a special agent from the bureau. of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security.

But Threat now hopes to turn things around.

“We know what the issues are, and I think I have the right people in place to address them,” he said.

Threat said the goal is to get all the money spent and all the projects completed by the time the next administration takes over in 2026.

“Hopefully we can get there, I’m determined to get there.”

But since the city now plans to miss the 2023 deadline, getting there will require more than reforms at the local level. It will require a federal extension. Threat said the goal is to have “notices of prosecution,” or NTPs, for all JIRR projects by the end of 2023. That’s a change from earlier this year, when Threat said the goal was to issue all NTPs by the end of 2022. .

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to start construction, but we’ll advise to proceed with construction,” Threat said.

Threat hopes that showing the federal government that the city is making improvements, has a plan to spend all funds, and has faced serious obstacles over the past few years will be enough to secure the expansion. He also said he was in constant communication with FEMA and that the administration was working with the city’s federal congressional delegation to help secure the extension.

If the extension is granted and the program is made more efficient, Threat and council members said the projects will ultimately make the town a much better place to live, even though all the construction has caused problems for residents in the process.

“What we’re seeing right now is he’s being dealt with,” Councilman Oliver Thomas said. “We did not properly explain to the public the extent of the work. … If it had been explained, I think people would appreciate it more now.

City Manager Gilbert Montaño told council that the administration would follow up with another presentation to council on June 7 that would further explain the city’s new approach to JIRR and other construction projects.