Local government can afford a downpayment on flood protection
"People are only excited about funding flood protection projects after a storm. They don’t realize that its the pipes under ground that are protecting their home."
Let’s look at Escambia’s Local Option Sales Tax revenues. The county launched the new LOST in 2018, to raise nearly $175 million for public infrastructure over the next 10 years.1 That’s a lot of money, and it can turn into even more if the county plays its cards right (we’ll get to that later). But only 23% of that money is going to flood protection: just $4 million per year. The other $13.5 million per year is being spent on new roads, sidewalks, and traffic improvements.
To be clear, providing good roads is an important part of the county’s job. But here’s a simple truth. Escambia County can’t build the kind of flood protection it needs on a shoestring budget.
What can Escambia Do?
How Funding Works
So what’s Escambia to do? Let’s start by getting clear on how local funding works. We start with local money - for the sake of illustration, we’ll do $1 million. That’s about $6 per Escambia County household.
The county can take this funding and work with investors to borrow 20x that $1 million by issuing municipal bonds. Counties do this frequently, especially for things that are important and urgent - think new schools, a big bridge, or a water treatment plan.2 Escambia has done this before too: by using bonds, the county was able to raise the money for a new county jail in just three short years.3
In our example, the county now has $20 million. That’s smart. Flooding is urgent and important, and the county has now multiplied what it can do to help. But that’s not all it can do. With the money it’s raised, the county can now apply for state and federal cost-sharing programs. This means that Florida and the US government can partner with Escambia, and they’ll help pick up the check. In fact, they’ll typically provide at least $2 for every $1 put forward by the county.4 Now our $20 million has become $60 million.
Are you seeing the power of this process? Every additional dollar the county dedicates to flooding gets multiplied if the county does this right.
Has it been done before?
Escambia has some big flooding issues. It’s $283 million behind in funding the flood protection it committed to after the 2014 floods. But this isn’t impossible - not at all. There are big moves the county can make. Spending just a little less on roads - and leveraging that money well to multiply it - gives Escambia the resources it needs to protect its residents and head flooding off at the pass.
Smart counties across the US have multiplied their flood protection dollars with creative funding strategies and the use of tools like municipal bonds and federal and state matches.
The Harris County Flood Control District has used municipal bonds to expand flood protection in the Houston area. More than 85% of voters approved the use of the bonds in 2018 to provide $2.5 billion to the county and unlock $2 billion more in federal matching funds, without significant additional burden on taxpayers.6
Miami Beach, FL
Miami Beach used a slight increase in stormwater fees (bringing the total to about $20 per household) to create a municipal bond that raised $200 million. They used that money to address street flooding by raising roads and installing pumps, preventing traffic delays, and making sure hurricane evacuation routes are safe.7
South Holland, IL
South Holland has been using a creative strategy to address flooding: since 1994, they’ve offered homeowners a 25% rebate on home improvements for flood protection. More than 1000 homes have used the offer to address flooding, reducing the burden on the county and taxpayers.8