A bill that would reduce the number of bids required for the state to contract house repairs after a disaster passed a N.C. House Committee on Wednesday. House Speaker Pro Tempore Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, and House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, were co-sponsors of HB119, Increase Informal Bid Threshold which would give the Office of Resiliency and Recovery an exemption to the state requirement for competitive bids. In the case of disaster repairs, the office would only have to get competitive bids for work over $250,000, which are mostly homes that have to be completely replaced.
“We just want to see it stop being spent on hotel rooms,” said Stevens. “We’ve spent $15 million in hotel rooms rather than getting these people back in their homes. We want to see the productive use of this money to build a home that people can actually get back into.”
The bill comes after multiple committee hearings uncovered extensive delays by the Cooper administration in recovery for victims of Hurricane Matthew six years ago and Hurricane Florence four years ago. The Office of Resiliency and Recovery (NCORR), set up by Cooper in 2016, is responsible for helping victims get back into homes, either repaired or replaced, but according to witnesses who spoke to the committee of lawmakers, bureaucratic management delays made the process far from efficient.
In legislative hearings in September and December of 2022, lawmakers criticized NCORR because it received $778 million in federal dollars to help people hurt by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, yet some remain homeless years later. Victims, builders, and managers from South Carolina, where recovery was much more efficient, testified that the NCORR policies, project management, and case manager turnover created the delays.
As of December 2022, 115 families were still without homes from the 2016 and 2018 storms. Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, said at the December hearing that commission staff visited 60 homesites this fall and found contractors working at just one of them. Stevens said at the meeting that the repair process should prioritize elderly and disabled victims, which it currently does not.
There is a deadline for getting these projects completed. The federal government requires the state to spend the $778 million by 2025 for Matthew and 2026 for Florence.
“Any thoughts about guardrails around this project, about misuse of these funds, or your thoughts about building some systems into this that might stop that from happening?” Rep. Rudow, D-Buncombe, asked on Wednesday.
In addition to oversight from the N.C. General Assembly, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development audits the program.
“There’s a lot of accountability built into this, and the oversight committee is asking the same questions,” said Bell. “I would say, at this point, I don’t think there could be a bigger microscope on this project than there is right now.”
NCORR is scheduled to give another update to lawmakers on March 15.