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May storms: FEMA sends 1 in 5 disaster aid dollars to one Oklahoma ZIP code

Brandon Ashline said he relied on the real estate experts who told him he wouldn’t need flood insurance when he purchased a home in the Town and Country neighborhood about two years ago.

After all, his home, built around 2000, had never flooded.

So when the Arkansas River floodwaters began receding after reaching 42 inches inside his west Tulsa County home in late May, the only good option Ashline had was to seek disaster assistance from FEMA, knowing he would have to shoulder most of the financial burden for the rebuild.

A couple of blocks away, longtime Town and Country neighborhood resident Naomi Jones, who knows a thing or two about floods, was on her guard when the rain kept falling last May.

A survivor of the 1986 Tulsa County flood that brought 4 feet of floodwaters into her home, Jones was closely eyeing Arkansas River releases from the Lake Keystone dam this time as record amounts of water were released upstream.

“We had an inkling it was going to happen,” Jones recalled, referring to a flood. “We’d gotten a U-Haul the night before in case they said we had to go.”

The next day, May 23, Jones said she loaded what furniture she could fit in the U-Haul before leaving her home the same day.

“Water was already coming across the road when we drove out,” Jones recalled.

Both Ashline and Jones live in the 74063 ZIP code, which ranks No. 1 in FEMA relief grants to individuals affected by flooding, severe storms, tornadoes and strong straight-line winds in Oklahoma from May 7 through June 9.

Individuals like Ashline, Jones and other 74063 residents have received a combined $3 million in federal disaster assistance payments through Aug. 9, the most among any ZIP code in the major disaster designation zone, according to a Tulsa World analysis of FEMA claim data.

In all, disaster relief payments to individuals in the 74063 ZIP code through Aug. 9 accounted for about 1 in 5 dollars of the $14.4 million spent by FEMA in 27 counties designated to receive aid. Since providing the World the claim data, FEMA has since approved payment of an additional $700,000 in relief aid to individuals and households, according to the government agency’s website for this disaster.

The total does not include claims paid under the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA has paid nearly $37 million in NFIP claims stemming from the spring storms in Oklahoma.

And while FEMA has processed individual assistance claims in all 27 of the counties designated to receive aid, five ZIP code regions account for the majority of the aid approved, the analysis shows.

Statewide, over 5,300 households have registered for federal assistance in the 27 eligible counties, according to a FEMA spokesperson. Those households generated about 11,400 claims through Aug. 9 ranging from rental assistance to home-repair grants.

Fewer than 1 in 3 of the 11,400-plus claims were approved, according to a World analysis of disaster payment data. FEMA breaks down a single household application for aid into categories, depending on the type of assistance requested. As a result, one household can have multiple requests, or claims, for assistance depending on the need.

FEMA doesn’t maintain statistics on typical approval rates, but a spokesperson said in an email that the rate here has been higher than other states.

FEMA housing assistance typically only covers costs to return a home to a safe and sanitary living space or functional condition. Damage that leaves a home as still habitable and safe to live in is not typically reimbursable by FEMA.

FEMA processed 518 claims in the 74063 ZIP code, with about 81% of those for single-family structures. Mobile homes made up the bulk of the remaining claims in the 74063 ZIP code.

In all, FEMA approved about $2.28 million for home repairs in the 74063 ZIP code.

Other aid provided by FEMA in the 74063 ZIP code included rental assistance, $433,619; and replacement of personal property, $281,485.

Aid totals by county

Tulsa County applicants received the most funds, $4.2 million, when looking at the aid payments by the county of the applicant.

Muskogee County, with $3.9 million in individual disaster assistance approved, received the second most funding from the storms.

Osage, Wagoner and Sequoyah counties round out the top five counties, ranked by total FEMA aid provided to individuals with $967,845, $776,428 and $746,259 the respective amounts approved.

The least FEMA individual assistance aid was in Pottawatomie County, where 12 of 114 claims were approved totaling $10,331, most for home repairs.

Real property claims

The disaster resulted in $21.4 million in total claims statewide for real property damage, which includes drywall, floor covering, interior door replacement and the entire rebuilding of a residence.

Drywall replacement topped the list of types of real property damage claimed, with $6.4 million estimated to be lost by FEMA applicants. Not all real property claims were paid by FEMA. Some were rejected due to the property having flood insurance.

Personal property claimsOver half of the $2.4 million in personal property damage claims came from five loss types.

Refrigerator damage claims accounted for 15% or $367,000 in losses, the No. 1 property type claimed as damaged.

Washer and dryer damage claims each accounted for 11% of the total personal property claims. Oven ranges and beds round out the top five loss types, accounting for 11% and 10%, respectively.

Lesser amounts were spent on the following items that were lost due to flooding: toys, $9,750; heating fuel, $4,835; cribs, $2,130; coal/pellets, $490.

Other claim typesFEMA fielded 466 claims for individual assistance with medical bills related to the storm. All but two, one for $761 and the other for $34,900, were rejected by FEMA.

Likewise, FEMA rejected all 60 claims for dental aid related to the disaster.

FEMA has paid six of seven claims for funeral expenses totaling $31,035 linked to the storm. The seventh claim was pending approval at the time the data were provided to the World.

Both Jones and Ashline said they received grant aid from FEMA.

Jones said FEMA granted her “some money,” knowing the bulk of the rebuilding funds would have to come from her flood insurance.

However, nearly four months after evacuating, Jones was still living in a travel trailer she purchased so she could be on site during the work.

Ashline, meanwhile, who didn’t have flood insurance, said he has been back in his home since early September after receiving $20,000 from FEMA to go toward rebuilding his home. He estimates he has spent about $40,000 of his own money on the rebuilding effort.

Ashline said he sympathizes with residents with flood insurance who have experienced delays in receiving their settlement checks.

“It’s the people with insurance who are getting screwed,” Ashline said.

Jones said her experience dealing with the flood insurance program has not been positive.

“I was glad I had insurance, but I feel like the people who didn’t have insurance, they got to go on and get things done, but we had to wait until the insurance could decide what they could pay,” Jones said. “I know they had a lot of claims, but it seems like it took a terribly long time to get any money at all.”

“When we flooded in ‘86, ... we were back in in six weeks’ time, but this time it’s been over three months and it will be another two months before we are back in,” Jones said.

The timing on receiving a check from the National Flood Insurance program depends on how quickly the insured completes a three-step process, the FEMA spokesperson said.

Once the three steps are complete, a claim payment should be received within 30 to 45 days; however, a major flooding event such as experienced here could require more time.

Ashline, meanwhile, said he was disappointed when FEMA rejected his request for assistance to repair his detached garage, which flooded.

“So if it (the garage) was attached, they would replace the Sheetrock, the siding, the insulation,” Ashline said.

FEMA regulations only permit grant aid to main living structures, Ashline said. Detached garages are not covered.

Ashline said FEMA told him grant aid only covered the basics. “Just the basic, what’s it going to take to get you livable in the house,” Ashline recalled.


Encentus backing out of cannabis banking in Oklahoma

One of the few banking options for Oklahoma medical marijuana businesses says financial challenges have forced it to back out of the industry less than a year after taking on its first cannabis-connected clients.

Tulsa-based Encentus Federal Credit Union last month sent a letter to its clients that “we are not equipped to service the business accounts of our Medical Marijuana businesses.”

Encentus board chair Jana Hallman told the Tulsa World on Friday that nine business accounts will be closed by Oct. 31 due to the change.

“Upon significant review and research, we have come to realize that we do not have the staff nor the software sufficient to maintain the business activity,” Hallman wrote in the Aug. 26 letter.

Because of federal law recognizing cannabis as illegal, options are limited for state-licensed marijuana businesses to handle things such as payroll and cash deposits, though some financial institutions have been willing to help the industry.

Misty Potter, president and CEO of Encentus, said in a previous interview that she was affected by a dispensary owner’s request for banking services. “We can’t let these poor guys flounder around with a bunch of cash in their back closet,” she said then.

About 400 institutions in the U.S. are serving the medical marijuana industry, though it can be expensive to work with cannabis-connected businesses because of tighter restrictions and regulations.

Potter said she was told by her federal examiner that the credit union was free to work with businesses in the industry as long as it follows the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network — or FinCEN — Guidelines set forth in 2014.

Those guidelines basically turn bank staff into auditors, Hallman told the Tulsa World. She said cannabis banking accounts can never have a penny not accounted for at any given time, and reporting is incredibly arduous.

“It takes a lot of time and software to really be able to keep up with it like we need to,” Hallman said, “and at least right now we’re not in the position that we can pour those kinds of dollars into software (and staff).”

Hallman said she is sorry that even after charging fees, the cost burden of continuing to serve cannabis-connected clients necessitated Encentus’ departure from the industry.

“It’s just we cannot financially continue to do it. We’re sorry, but we are held responsible for keeping our financial institution in good standing.”

Abaca, a financial technology company based in Arkansas, works with banks that want to serve the cannabis industry. The company partners with a state-chartered bank to offer deposit accounts and other financial services to cannabis businesses in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Abaca handles the compliance and online banking interface for the banks it works with, and provides dispensaries the ability to take electronic payments.

“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear of a bank or credit union that has to sever its ties with the cannabis industry,” Abaca CEO Dan Roda told the Tulsa World. “Banking cannabis properly is labor intensive, and the cost of compliance can be prohibitively high without the right tools.”

This week the U.S. House passed a bill seeking to ease the industry’s problems with banking access. Its future in the Senate is unclear.

The bill would allow businesses legitimately operating under state laws to access loans, lines of credit and other banking services, while sheltering financial institutions from prosecution for handling marijuana-linked money. However, Roda and Hallman said it won’t be a panacea for cannabis-connected businesses.

“It’s important to note that the SAFE Banking Act ... makes the existing regulatory guidance permanent,” Roda said. “So, if it becomes law, there will still be a compliance cost for banks and business owners, just like in other cash-intensive industries like casino gaming.”


Three years later, not a penny of Vision Tulsa arts funds have been distributed

Creating art isn’t easy. And in the city of Tulsa, it turns out, distributing public dollars to fund the arts isn’t easy, either.

Three years after Tulsa voters approved $2.25 million for the arts in the Vision Tulsa package, not a penny of the money has been distributed to local arts organizations, nor is there a process in place to distribute it.

This has not sat well with the city’s Arts Commission, whose chairman in June sent a letter to Mayor G.T. Bynum asking for help moving the process along.

“At the August 2018 Tulsa Arts Commission meeting, our city staff representatives announced that the process (to distribute funds) was finalized and approved. A press conference was scheduled for the following week and the application process was set to open on August 22, 2018,” wrote Dan Alaback. “But there was no press conference and the Arts Commissioners found out the following meeting that the process was being held up by City Council. As of today, we have been shutdown [sic] on every front to move this process forward.”

Alaback’s letter could just have easily — and accurately — said the process had been stopped by City Councilor Phil Lakin. Lakin was the lead advocate for including arts funding in the Vision Tulsa package, and he is the councilor with whom the Tulsa Arts Commission has been working to hammer out the details of how the funds would be distributed.

“I put a hold on this because it seemed like the application process that had been designed would be insurmountable to some small arts organizations,” Lakin said.

The city councilor said another reason he stopped the process was to try to incorporate ideas he was hearing from his fellow councilors and to figure out a way for individual artists to apply.

“We just want to do this the right way the first time,” Lakin said. “This is the first time the public has set money like this aside for small and big arts organizations, and now, potentially, individual artists. And we’ve got to get it right.”

Lakin said several other factors have played a role in delaying the funding process. He was unexpectedly thrust into the role of City Council chairman when former City Councilor David Patrick died. The city has also been dealing with major issues, including the May floods and the Equality Indicators special meetings.

Lakin said he and other city officials involved in the discussions have also been dealing with family health issues.

“So it didn’t have anything to do with the Arts Commission, it just had to do with life in general and the responsibilities that come in and through life,” he said.

Minutes from the city’s Arts Commission meetings show that as early as Feb. 8, 2016 — two months before the Vision Tulsa vote — discussions were underway to provide the funding directly to the Arts Alliance of Tulsa using the Arts Commission as a pass-through.

“Todd Cunningham, Executive Director of the Arts Alliance of Tulsa (AAT), presented about AAT and the line item in the Vision package for $2.25 million for the AAT with the Tulsa Arts Commission’s name listed,” according to Arts Commission minutes.

In March 2016, Commissioner Holbrook Lawson reported to the commission that she had called Lakin to set up a meeting to “understand what is happening and the role of the Arts Commission.”

“The package has a line item of $2.25 million passing through the Arts Commission to the Arts Alliance of Tulsa,” the minutes state.

Lakin served on the AAT citizens advisory board at the time the Vision Tulsa package was being put together by the City Council and approved by voters in April 2016. He is executive director of the Tulsa Community Foundation, of which Arts Alliance of Tulsa is a component fund. He is also chairman of the board of directors of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which provided $1 million in early funding for AAT.

Lakin said Friday that he initially thought AAT could receive the Vision Tulsa funds or assist in the process of administering the funds because he had seen other cities contract with arts alliances to distribute public dollars. But he was disabused of that notion by the city’s legal department well before the Vision Tulsa package went to voters.

Lakin said he met with that department in 2015 and was informed that the Vision Tulsa funds would have to go through an authority, board or commission.

“I told them that was completely fine because my motivation is to provide funding to increase the population’s interest in, appreciation of and access to the arts,” Lakin said

The city councilor said he did not attend either the February 2016 or March 2016 Arts Commission meetings so he could not comment on the minutes of those meetings.

His interest in proposing the Vision Tulsa arts funding was to support the arts — not a specific arts association or arts alliance, Lakin said. The Vision Tulsa package calls for distributing $150,000 a year over 15 years to qualifying arts organizations. The funded programs must show that they would benefit the city economically.

“I know the important role they (the arts) play in our community,” he said. “I believe they stimulate our economy, and I think they make us a cool and hip town.”

Lakin does not believe he had a conflict of interest because of his involvement with AAT and his positions with the Tulsa Community Foundation and GKFF. The city’s ethics code prohibits city officials from participating in “any city business in which they have a related personal, financial or organizational interest” and that “the possibility, not the actuality, of a conflict shall govern.”

When city legal informed him that the Vision funding had to go through the city’s Arts Commission, “whatever conflict there could have been or somebody could have seen or anything else went immediately away,” Lakin said.

As for his involvement with GKFF, Lakin said the foundation gives millions of dollars to nonprofits across the community.

“That’s what we do,” he said. “Never has (city) legal said, ‘You have to recuse yourself because you are grant maker to this organization.’”

Alaback said the Arts Commission looks forward to meeting with Bynum and Lakin to continue discussions on the application process.

“Tulsa Arts Commission has been working with city staff, legal and planning to develop a process, and if approved, we will select a panel that will evaluate the applications and then award the winners that will provide economic development to the city of Tulsa,” he said. “Our hope is that this could occur as early as spring of 2020.”

Lakin is hopeful, too, though he acknowledges that the process has created some tension between those involved in the discussions. That tension, he insisted, had nothing to do with his pulling Alaback’s reappointment to the Arts Commission earlier this month.

Pulling Alaback’s reappointment does not affect his status on the commission, Lakin said, and gives everyone involved more time to resolve the issues related to distributing the arts funding.

The thought among councilors, he said, was that “maybe we just delay this so that ultimately we vote ‘yes’ in affirmation of his reappointment, and none of us could have any questions.”

“Nobody is trying to delay this,” he added. “We just want to get it right.”