The Investigators: State official explains cost behind Shelter at Home program

The Investigators: State official explains cost behind Shelter at Home program

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Only 20 percent of those who applied for the state's Shelter at Home program are actually back in their homes, and some homeowners are wondering if the state is wasting taxpayers' money.

Gary Burkett had 18 inches of floodwater pour into his house in August. Thanks to the state's Shelter at Home program, he and his family are back while they slowly rebuild.

"We knew it was not going to be a permanent fix, just enough to get us back home, and that was our goal," Burkett said.

Contractors working for the program repaired 12 things for the Burketts, including the installation of a kitchen sink held up by a basic wooden frame, a bathroom sink and toilet, and a hotplate for cooking. Nothing is high end, but it all works and more than fulfills the state's promise of a temporary work that provides "a safe, secure, habitable place for the family to live."

One thing Burkett did not see, however, was the final bill. That is charged to the program. While Shelter at Home participants do not pay out of pocket, the program is taxpayer funded. FEMA will cover 90 percent, leaving state taxpayers to cover the final 10 percent.

According to the governor's office, the Shelter at Home program can provide around 60 different services, from cleaning to installing smoke alarms.

However, some homeowners were surprised to learn the individual price tags for services, which are public record. For example, installation of a kitchen sink is $850. Installation for a bathroom sink comes in at $700. A battery-operated smoke detector costs $71.55. Each completed project also has a $1,500 "general condition fee," defined as "mobilization, joint work order development, admin support and equipment required otherwise not billable."

The governor's Deputy Chief of Staff Julie Baxter Payer explained the prices charged are standard for each project. According to Payer, the prices were determined based on the cost of labor, supplies, storage and other things. The costs also went through a bid process and extensive negotiations with contractors. FEMA had final approval.

Independent contractor David Richardson took a look at the prices. A long-time builder in Baton Rouge, he said a lot of factors can inflate the price of construction work from labor to the availability of parts and tools.

"I would say some of these things are fair, but some of them are a little exorbitant," Richardson said.

Payer admitted that one individual working on his own home could probably "beat some of these prices at times," but she said the program has to account for labor and storage of materials for thousands of homes on a limited time table.

"I think if you look at the prices for the things on this list, and you see they include labor," Payer said. "They include all the supplies to install each item, and they include the material for each item."

As for the $1,500 general condition fee, the governor's office said that is only paid when contractors finish the work under the program. Payer explained that fee is also used to help contractors break even in some cases.

"That is to cover the fact that many homes, they may spend more on it than they're actually able to make as a contractor," Payer said.

Payer was unable to comment on how much profit the contractors involved in the program will make because the program is ongoing.

However, Payer said so far the state has paid out a little over $500,000, with another $1.2 million invoiced by contractors.

Despite his satisfaction with the work on his house, Burkett said he's worried about how the program will hit taxpayers down the road.

"I guess I can see we're happy with the program that it was opened up to us and we were able to get home, not so happy that the cost was so excessive. It's a blade that cuts both ways," Burkett said.

The application period for the Shelter at Home program closed October 21. At that time, more than 21,600 families had applied. Of those, 19,300 were eligible for an inspection. So far, 4,727 homes have been completed with another 5,186 under construction.

See a price list from the Shelter at Home program below:

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