Flood control: Was Congress doing its job?

EMIL NAGEL, above, with microphone, points at U.S. Rep. Robert Latta during a discussion of proposed Blanchard River flood-control projects in December 2013. Latta says the Army Corps of Engineers decides whether a flood-control project will get federal funding, but a Boise State University professor says it was really up to Latta to obtain the money. (Photo by Pete Mattiace / The Courier)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a seven-day series of stories that look back, and attempt to look forward, at the issue of flood control in Hancock and Putnam counties. The stories have been written in recognition of the 10-year anniversary of the disastrous flood of Aug. 22, 2007.

By LOU WILIN
STAFF WRITER

Since 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers has taken much of the blame for slow and fruitless efforts to reduce Blanchard River flooding in Findlay.

The corps was disdained by local officials and citizens as stodgy, stupid and intractable, an enclave of bureaucrats indifferent to Findlay’s flood anguish. U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, expressed frustration at times with the corps but said there was no way around the federal agency.

“You have to work with the corps,” Latta said. “The corps is the one that makes the decision as to whether (a project) gets funded or not.”

But that is all fiction and political cover for congressional representatives and the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, according to a Boise State University professor who has written a book and essays about the corps. Todd Shallat said the House Appropriations Committee controls the purse strings for flood funding. It was up to Latta, as this area’s U.S. representative, to persuade the committee, Shallat said.

“The congressmen — your local congressman — they are the ones that get these projects,” Shallat said.

The Army Corps of Engineers merely follows the Appropriations Committee’s lead, then stands out front and absorbs any political fallout, according to Shallat.

Latta and Brown disagree with that assessment. Portman’s office did not respond to an inquiry from The Courier.

The lawmakers said they did all they could to win federal funding for Blanchard River flood reduction. It was the corps, not them or their colleagues in Congress, who held sway, they said.
Shallat disputes that.

“First of all, a situation like this, a local flood-control district, there’s lots of players and the corps is really the arbiter more than a player, because the Corps of Engineers isn’t going to put up a lot of money for it. It’s probably state and local financing and Congress’ appropriation,” Shallat said. “The corps probably doesn’t really have a dog in the fight.”

After the 2007 flood, Findlay and Hancock County leaders were hoping to have a flood-reduction project under construction by 2012, with 65 percent federal funding.

The Army Corps, a federal public works agency, did not release a flood-reduction plan until 2015.

Then a year later, the corps said its proposed Eagle Creek diversion channel would cost more than previously thought. With the additional cost, the diversion channel plan failed a cost-benefit analysis, disqualifying it for federal funding, the corps said.

But it’s politics, not a cost-benefit analysis, that determines which projects get funded, Shallat contends.

A cost-benefit analysis “doesn’t have anything to do, or much to do, with what gets funded, in fact, because what happens in reality is, policy is not made that way,” Shallat said. “(The) policy is, the congressman goes to the Appropriations Committee to get a bill to get the funding, and then they (the corps) backfill the cost-benefit analysis.”

“So that’s the most basic thing: The cost-benefit analysis comes after the political demand for the thing,” Shallat said.

Shallat said the low cost-benefit ratio for the proposed Eagle Creek diversion channel was a sign that it didn’t have the necessary support in Congress.

Brown’s office said that he, Portman and Latta worked with Findlay-Hancock County leaders to “press the Army Corps for answers on the discrepancies in its cost-benefit analysis.”

“For some reason, the corps is ambivalent about this project. I don’t know why. They say it was because the cost-benefit thing didn’t pan out. Maybe (the diversion channel was) too small of a project,” Shallat said.

Latta did not outright embrace that view, but he did not dispute it either.

“Even if you got above the threshold (a cost-benefit ratio above 1.0), the problem is then you are competing with all these other projects that the corps has in general,” Latta said.

“I tell the corps, ‘It might not be really big to you, but it’s really big to us. We have got to get this thing fixed,'” Latta said.

Others say Latta, Brown and Portman were frustrated with the corps.

“I sat with Sen. Brown and Sen. Portman, who were frustrated with them,” said Scott Malaney, part of the Northwest Ohio Flood Mitigation Partnership, which sought to speed up flood-reduction efforts. “Representative Latta was terribly frustrated with them.”

Latta and his predecessor representing Hancock County in the U.S. House, Jim Jordan, said over the years they were unable to obtain flood-control funding through Congress because earmarks were no longer allowed. An earmark is a provision inserted into a bill that directs funds to a specific project.

Earmarks were completely banned starting in 2011 when John Boehner became House speaker, Latta said. Before that, Boehner banned House Republicans from seeking them when he was minority leader, according to Latta.

Shallat rejects Jordan’s and Latta’s arguments that congressional earmarks were banned.

“That’s not right. They didn’t do away with earmarks. They just call them something else,” Shallat said. “And they earmark all the time.

“If your congressman wants it to happen, it will happen,” he said, then laughed. “That sounds to me, when you are talking about blaming it on (banning) earmarks, I mean, that was a cover.

“Basically, there is still all kinds of discretionary funding,” Shallat said.

Congress and its House Appropriations Committee — not the corps — has the power to fund flood-reduction projects, he said.

The corps is “a creature of Congress and the House appropriations committees,” Shallat said. The corps’s “life and blood” is the appropriations committees of Congress.

That makes the Army Corps of Engineers a special case among federal agencies, he said.

“Unlike the other agencies, they have this bizarre relationship with Congress, mostly with the appropriations committees of Congress,” Shallat said.

Although other federal agencies are controlled by the president and the executive branch, the corps is controlled by Congress’ appropriations committees, he said.

In addition, the corps’s structure is set up so that it is decentralized, making it “highly sensitive to the congressional district,” Shallat said.

Perhaps strong rural opposition to the Eagle Creek diversion channel doomed it. Farmers in Hancock, Putnam, Hardin, Allen, Wyandot and Paulding counties control about 80 percent of the 771-square-mile Blanchard River watershed.

“A situation like this, it’s a situation where the local people do not agree,” Shallat said. “Different local people have different interests.”

THURSDAY: Ottawa residents and business owners recall the 2007 flood, and discuss how the village has changed since then.

Wilin: 419-427-8413
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