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Officials eyeing federal flood relief matches

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., says he's ready to fight for leveling out federal aid.

FARGO - A Red River bloated past 40 feet knows no political boundaries. Yet federal relief for the flood will by law hew to state borders.

The state-by-state response worries officials in Minnesota, who remember it took Congress - specifically, a favor from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich - to level out differing federal shares of some relief money in 1997.

Barring that fix, a provision slipped into budget reconciliation, the portion of public flood relief paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have been 90 percent in North Dakota and 75 percent in Minnesota.

The potential for the difference to crop up again is a serious enough concern that top Minnesota officials such as Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Dist. 7 Rep. Collin Peterson have already said they're prepared to step in if needed.

"In all these conversations I've been able to have with these higher-ups, that's the only thing I bring up," said Peterson, a 10-term veteran of Congress. "Having been through this before, I know where the minefields are."

Pawlenty mentioned the 1997 disparity in a speech to civic leaders in Moorhead on April 2, saying it would be unfair and pledging to help eliminate any differences in matches.

"It's going to start being an issue," said Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland.

The root issue is the separate federal responses to disasters in the Red River basin. There are two FEMA teams here, one for each side of the river. They each have their own office, with staffers on each side doing the same jobs. Even separate disaster decrees were required to get them here.

So damage to public infrastructure is tallied by each state. To qualify for FEMA public assistance, a state needs to have $1.31 in damage per capita or, for small states such as North Dakota, a total of at least $1 million. That's to get FEMA money with the standard 75 percent federal match, which requires the state and local governments to come up with the other 25 percent.

To qualify for the higher 90 percent matching rate, states need to show $122 in damage per person. Because there's such a difference in population between North Dakota and Minnesota, the per-capita threshold is easier to meet on the west side of the Red.

John Treanor, a FEMA spokesman in Minnesota, said a 90 percent match can also be requested without the threshold being met.

"It's kind of one of those decisions where it doesn't hurt to ask," he said.

The difference can add up. After the 1997 flood, Moorhead received $2.7 million in federal relief, said Harlyn Ault, city finance director. If the federal government picked up 75 percent of the tab, the city and state would need to pay $900,000. At 90 percent, the local share drops to $300,000.

"There was a lot of concern about that, a lot of consternation," said state Rep. Morrie Lanning, who as Moorhead's mayor traveled to Washington in 1997 to help lobby Gingrich.

From the outside, FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice admits state-specific operations may seem to be unneeded duplication.

But it's not, he said, because FEMA technically works directly for each state, on invitation by its governor.

"We deal with states, not regions or geographic boundaries. Our partner is that particular state," said DeFelice, of the North Dakota FEMA team.

DeFelice said having two separate FEMA operations can also lead to other variations between states. Similar programs can be implemented at different times and in different ways. And for some pools of money, such as hazard mitigation grants, states set the priorities, so they're bound to differ.

The matching rates only apply to public assistance, not the grants and loans for individual owners of businesses and homes.

Preliminary assessment of public damage in Minnesota found more than

$17 million, state officials said Friday. That's only enough to meet just the 75 percent threshold.

Public damage assessments haven't been done in North Dakota - DeFelice said they begin Monday - so it's too soon to tell if there will be a repeat of 1997. But Gov. John Hoeven said in a news release Friday that he believes there will be enough damage to hit the 90 percent level - $78.3 million by the U.S. Census' 2008 estimate of the state's population.

Peterson said President Barack Obama and the heads of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have all assured him there won't be a fix required to put the states on even footing this time around.

"They claim there isn't going to be any differences. They all said that. We'll see," Peterson said. "I don't know that they know what they're going to run into."