Environment, Legislature

After coastal towns complain about Resource Institute, lawmakers could rescind its $5 million windfall

The Atlantic Reefmaker is a wave-breaking technology used in inlets, but not oceanfronts. After receiving $5 million from the legislature last year, the Resource Institute proposed using the technology — sold by one of its primary contractors — for hurricane resilience. North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach officials have objected to both the Reefmaker and the Resource Institute, the latter of which they say has little expertise in coastal projects. (Photo: Atlantic Reefmaker)

[Update: On Tuesday afternoon the Senate passed this bill, the bulk of which deals with veterans’ memorial funds, but includes language to revoke funding for the Resource Institute beach projects. The measure now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.]

One year you have $5 million, the next year — poof — it’s gone.

Funding for the politically connected Resource Institute is on the brink of being eliminated in Senate Bill 95 after several coastal towns complained to lawmakers that the Winston-Salem nonprofit didn’t have the expertise to tackle hurricane resilience and recovery projects.

If the bill becomes law, the money would be divided equally among Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach and Surf City for hurricane recovery projects.

Squeak Smith, chairman of the Resource Institute board of directors, told Policy Watch he is waiting for the final bill language to determine the next steps.

The Resource Institute, Smith said, “will continue to advocate for additional funding for the coastal communities to help address resiliency after future storm events. We are fully prepared and qualified to carry out projects in conjunction with future funding sources and communities wanting our assistance and services.”

The Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill last night, but the measure was pulled from the calendar and rescheduled for 4 p.m. today.

The $5 million appropriation for the Resource Institute originated in last year’s budget bill, ostensibly to work with coastal governments on alternatives to beach nourishment. But as Policy Watch reported at the time, the appropriation occurred after leadership at the Resource Institute, as well as several of its contractors, contributed more than $115,000 to key lawmakers. Later contributions increased that total to $150,000.

After Hurricane Florence hit the coast in September, a subsequent bill changed the funding purpose to storm recovery.

Earlier this year, North Topsail Beach officials successfully lobbied their legislator, Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, to redirect $1.6 million to them. According to emails obtained under the Public Records Act, North Topsail Mayor Dan Tuman also objected to the Resource Institute’s 12 percent administrative fee.

“$600K to folks who don’t do or know anything, who will insert meaningless pet projects that they promote for consideration …” Tuman wrote. The pet project he referred to is the Atlantic Reefmaker, a wave attenuator that has been used in inlets but not ocean fronts. One of the Resource Institute’s contractors, North State Environmental, markets, sells and installs the technology.

Subsequently, Topsail Beach and Surf City officials asked another lawmaker, Sen. Bill Rabon, who represents four coastal counties, to divert the remaining money to them.

The Resource Institute also received scrutiny in March from the legislative Program Evaluation Division. Similar to the federal Government Accountability Office, the PED analyzes and investigates the effectiveness of state programs. The PED found that the Resource Institute had duplicated more than 50 invoices to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The duplication resulted in a $20,000 overpayment to the Resource Institute for stream restoration in the western part of the state.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund administers grants for the streams program.

In 2013, the Resource Institute, with the backing of the US Department of Agriculture, pitched the idea of a Western Stream Restoration program to former lawmaker Mitch Gillespie, then the assistant secretary of the environment. Since then 96 percent of the funding — $8.16 million — has been awarded to the Resource Institute. Of the 67 grants, the group received 65 of them.

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