Should the federal government end its historic role in helping state and local governments pay for upgrades to flood control levees, including those that are part of federal flood control projects?
If Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, had his way, that tradition would end.
McClintock says it's unfair for people living on high ground to subsidize "those who freely choose to live in floodplains." He'd require that any federal assistance be in the form of loans, as opposed to the current cost-share arrangement involving local, state and federal funds.
The 100,000 people who live in Natomas should take notice. They've been paying higher flood insurance rates and levee assessments since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a federal agency determined that Natomas needed extensive levee upgrades following the Hurricane Katrina inundation of New Orleans. Local money has covered nearly a third of the $400 million in levee upgrades that have been completed because of the Corps mandates, with state bond money covering the rest.
If McClintock had his way, Natomas property owners would pick up the tab for the remaining $410 million in work that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to perform.
People who live in Roseville which, unlike Natomas, sits in McClintock's 4th Congressional District should also take notice. Part of Roseville flooded in 2005. Since then, the city has spent $20 million in flood control improvements, with roughly half the money coming from the federal government.
If Roseville were to need further federal support for flood control, would McClintock require that it be in the form of a loan, instead of a cost share?
The answer appears to be yes. "Ideally, Roseville taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize projects that exclusively benefit a group of Sacramento property owners, and Sacramento taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize projects that exclusively benefit a group of Roseville property owners," McClintock said in an email response.
McClintock's position reflects how far some elected leaders have drifted away from the concept of shared societal responsibilities. When levees are upgraded in Natomas, they not only benefit property owners there, they protect an international airport, a interstate highway and all the travelers that use that infrastructure. We suspect that many taxpayers in Roseville and elsewhere would gladly contribute to protect that airport and federal highway.
McClintock also seems to have forgotten the origins of federal flood control. The federal government got involved with levees through the Federal Flood Control Act of 1928 because so many historic U.S. cities are located in dangerous flood areas. Ideally, our nation's forefathers might have located St. Louis, Sacramento, New Orleans, Houston and New York on higher ground, away from rivers. But they didn't. Those cities are there now, and they are essential to the regional and even national economy. If we fail to invest in flood control, the cost to federal taxpayers can be measured in the billions of dollars, as we saw in New Orleans.
It should also be noted that the 1928 federal law made clear that local governments must share in the cost of levee protection. In particular, cities such as Sacramento must bear the cost of maintaining federal levees, and we do so through assessment districts such as the American River Flood Control District. Sacramento has even gone further by creating its own capital assessment district the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency to ensure we can commit a local share to projects, one that has increased over time.
In all likelihood, McClintock's policy perspective is not widely shared, and we are not sure even he is truly committed to it. In 2009, McClintock helped secure a $1.13 million FEMA grant to help build a new volunteer fire station in Rough and Ready, a community in his district with a burgeoning population of 963.
Asked how he justified the grant, which McClintock touted on his website, his spokeswoman Jennifer Cressy explained that the congressman opposed the original legislation that set aside the money, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. "Having lost that battle, he had no hesitation trying to salvage what he could for the communities he represents," said Cressy in an email.
In other words, a very rough-and-ready set of principles.