After months of lobbying and pressure from Iowa’s governor, congressional delegation and others, the federal government said the University of Iowa will get nearly $84 million to replace a flood damaged auditorium and arts and music facilities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in January 2009 that it would pay to replace Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium, a studio arts building and the school of music facility. The plan was to build replacements on higher ground away from the Iowa River, which runs through the university campus.
The river flooded in June 2008, forcing the evacuation and closure of 20 major buildings.
With the assurance that FEMA would help fund the replacement, the university began buying land and doing engineering work for the new buildings.
In June, the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluded that FEMA had improperly applied a rule requiring buildings to be repaired unless disaster damage exceeds 50 percent of the cost of building a replacement.
The OIG said its audit and review of the project was in response to a complaint that replacement was contrary to FEMA’s longstanding policy on flood damaged property.
The OIG concluded that FEMA had based its decision on inaccurate cost data and flawed calculations made by rushed employees after the disaster.
The inspector said the government should reallocate about $84 million _ the difference between rebuilding the existing buildings and construction of replacements _ and “put those federal funds to better use.”
The dispute within the Department of Homeland Security went to Rafael Borras, the agency’s undersecretary for management.
He concluded that FEMA did not need to reallocate the money and should proceed with the funding of replacement buildings.
Gov. Terry Branstad said in a statement that it’s unfortunate that the federal bureaucratic squabble dragged on for so long.
“Thankfully, common sense has prevailed,” he said in a statement.
University of Iowa President Sally Mason said the final decision on funding clears the way for construction.
“Our students and campus can now move forward with certainty that they will have the facilities they need,” she said in a statement.
The delay has been inconvenient. The music school is scattered among seven buildings. The art school has been holding classes in a former big box store that was hastily transformed into an academic building.
Hancher is in its fourth season without a permanent site using numerous locations for events.
The university had already spent about $30 million on land acquisition and architectural design and engineering work for the replacement buildings, said Mark Schouten, administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division.
“They’ve been caught in a real bind having invested a large amount of money in this project,” he said.
Borras said in his decision to replace the buildings he considered that Iowa had already spent the money for engineering costs and that “Iowa has incurred approximately $100 million additional damages to both buildings collectively due to mold, mildew, and lack of maintenance.”
Schouten said replacing the buildings outside the flood plain is in the best interest of taxpayers. He said it also avoids expensive complications that would have come from repairing buildings that have sat vacant for over four years, including mold removal and foundation stabilization measures.
University spokesman Tom Moore said it’s not immediately clear how much the months of delay will increase the cost of construction.
“We’ll have to analyze that,” he said.