Arkansas officials do not have an accurate count of the number of levees in the state, many local levee districts are defunct, and the state and federal government often lack the authority to do anything about it. All the while, some levee fees are still being collected by boards whose members are no longer living.
A joint meeting of The House and Senate Insurance and Commerce committees and the House and Senate Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development committees was held Wednesday for an overview of the state’s patchwork levee system following widespread flooding earlier this month.
Democratic Representative David Hillman says the relatively autonomous management of most levee systems could use more direction from the Capitol.
“We as a state government or as state agencies have very little authority over them. As long as things are going well we have a tendency to ignore them. I hope that as a result of this there might be some legislation introduced that would give better oversight over these levee boards and drainage districts,” said Hillman.
The executive director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC) Randy Young and Arkansas Department of Emergency Management director David Maxwell testified to lawmakers that many levee districts are now defunct, with 1930s and 40s era board members no longer living and local landowners and stakeholders not volunteering to take their place. No state agency is in charge of oversight. Young said the ANRC is prohibited by law from that role.
Dr. Randy Hathaway, with the US Army Corps of Engineers, said the upkeep of much of the state’s levee system falls outside the authority of both the federal and state government. Hathaway said it’s a “common situation” for neighboring states as well.
“The surrounding states to Arkansas have similar issues of local control and levee boards becoming defunct, and the people dying off, and landowners changing and then losing the thread of responsibility,” Hathaway said.
However, Hathaway noted many of the functioning levee districts and improvement districts along the state’s major waterways, like the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, have voluntarily entered federal programs for oversight and maintenance cost-sharing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Corps of Engineers and largely performed well during recent flooding.
Steve Brawner with KUAR content partner Talk Business and Politics reported an example of a board that no longer functions but that still collects taxes intended for levee upkeep.
“Young said taxes are being collected in some non-functioning levee districts. In response to questions from Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, he said he doesn’t know how the money is being used.
“’I’ve heard that numerous times during my career is that there are actually taxes being collected and the only person that knows they’re being collected is the attorney who was at one point employed by this group,’ Jones said.”
Young told legislators a process needs to be created to identify non-functioning districts, probably at the county level. He also said the lack of oversight should be addressed.
Miller County Judge Larry Burgess said that county officials likewise have no authority over the levee boards, which can raise and lower their own assessments. One district had $163,000 in its accounts, plus a $30,000 CD. He said an examination of boards’ finances in his county revealed financial records with no receipts and a check that a board secretary wrote to himself because he is also an engineer. He said the county has no authority to make the boards maintain their levees.
‘It’s almost like a homeowners’ association. There’s nothing I can do. I mean, I’m not in the loop,’ he said.”
State Senator Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow) orchestrated the meeting and said changes to the state’s levee system should be on the agenda of a special session if the Legislature is called to address changes to the federal health care law.
Rapert’s personal property was affected by flooding in Perry County. He said he learned from the Arkansas National Guard the section of levee that failed had done so 25 year prior.
In 2009 the Legislature received a report from the Bureau of Legislative Research that asked many of the same questions with similar assessments as those that testified Wednesday. Only one recommendation that requires levee boards to report accounting information to county clerks was adopted. ARNC director Young noted that didn’t address the information of non-functioning districts.