Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner takes jabs at land office, which says he's got his facts wrong on Harvey response

The Houston mayor accused Land Commissioner George P. Bush's agency of "hogging" federal Harvey relief money and associated administrative fees. The land office called Turner's complaints "disingenuous."

Texas General Land Commissioner George P. Bush (left) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Bush/Pu Ying Huang: Turner

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who tangled publicly with Gov. Greg Abbott last year over the state's response to Hurricane Harvey, turned his criticism to the Texas General Land Office on Wednesday.

In a series of tweets, Turner accused the GLO of “hogging” billions in disaster aid and excluding Houston leaders from conversations surrounding the disbursement of $5 billion awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last November.

“There’s a lack of cooperation and inclusiveness,” Turner said during a press conference shortly after his tweets. “We just need to get that worked out, and, quite frankly, we need to get that worked out yesterday. People are holding those of us here responsible, but we don’t have the dollars and we’re not being brought to the table.”

Turner also said that while he’s had an open line of communication with Abbott, he couldn’t say the same of Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose agency was tasked with running short-term housing programs for Harvey victims — a role that typically falls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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“We’re simply not being included in the process to help develop the action plan,” Turner said. “It’s unclear how much of the $5 billion already approved is going to be in the Houston area.”

Brittany Eck, press secretary for the GLO, said Turner’s characterization is disingenuous. Between phone calls, hearings, press conferences and meetings with local officials, Eck said Bush has done more than 60 events in Harvey-affected areas. Houston was also the only city to receive an early draft of the action plan. 

“We have been meeting with local officials to draft this action plan almost since the storm made landfall,” Eck said. “We’ve had five meetings leading up to the drafting of the plan. We have weekly calls with local officials that the city of Houston is invited to partake in. I don’t even know if we could quantify how many phone calls and meetings we’ve had.”

Turner also accused the GLO of running everything from Austin — rather than using local organizations in the affected areas — in order to keep administration fees.

“It seems to me (the GLO) wants to run the federal housing relief project from Austin," Turner tweeted. "That includes the agency keeping administrative fees. Why? I urge news media to shine a light on this unsatisfactory situation.”

Pete Phillips, senior director of the GLO's Community Development and Revitalization Program, said the $5 billion Harvey grant allows for up to 5 percent to be used to cover administrative fees, and a portion of that money would always go to the GLO regardless of where the effort is based. The GLO has used between 2.5 and 2.8 percent of the grant for administrative costs so more money goes to the recovery effort, he said. 

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“Our attitude is to be frugal and allow yourself the flexibility to convert your admin dollars to project dollars because that’s where they belong,” Phillips said.

On March 2, the GLO sent its action plan to be translated into other languages, after which it will be released for public comment. At that time, Phillips said, Houston officials will have an opportunity to offer their opinions on the plan. Then the GLO will draft a response and submit it to HUD before the agency can begin spending money on projects.

Shortly after Harvey made landfall in late August, bringing Category 4 winds and epic flooding, Turner criticized state leaders for being too slow to get relief money to the storm-stricken communities and urged Abbott to call a special legislative session to approve using the state's $10 billion Rainy Day Fund for Harvey relief.

When Abbott said that wasn't necessary, Turner threatened to impose a property tax hike in Houston to pay for Harvey recovery. The high-profile spat was settled when Abbott went to Houston and presented Turner with a $50 million check from a state disaster relief fund.

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.