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Localize the Road Home 

Is it just me, or is it a tad too coincidental that ICF International, the inscrutable Virginia-based company that administers the unfathomable Road Home program, managed to close a record number of applications within days of Mayor Ray Nagin asking for the program to be put under local control -- and a group of church leaders calling for a federal investigation of ICF's contract?

I guess landing a no-bid, hush-hush, $756 million contract is not incentive enough to do a good job. Somebody has to threaten to take it away and put you in jail to get some people off their derrieres. It must be a new variation on the old carrot-and-stick approach: the stick-and-bigger-stick method.

I like it.

Given the sudden "uptick" in ICF's productivity, one might expect an equally sudden cessation of interest in canceling the company's contract or investigating the shadowy circumstances surrounding ICF's selection in the first place. Let's hope not, because both ideas have merit.

No, I'm not suggesting that Nagin become the new Road Home czar. I'm not even convinced he meant it that way. But there is a great deal of merit in the notion of local implementation of a streamlined version of the Road Home program, with appropriate levels of oversight and accountability. Last time I checked, oversight and accountability were supposed to be the Louisiana Recovery Authority's (LRA's) job -- not inventing new ways to put roadblocks between flooded-out homeowners and the opportunity to either return home or start anew.

Consider, for example, the idea of a consortium of local banks, homesteads, appraisers, real estate companies and real estate attorneys putting their heads and talents together to confect a local variation of the Baker Plan. Remember the Baker Plan? It was put forth by Congressman Richard Baker of Baton Rouge, who is arguably the most studious member of Louisiana's delegation.

Baker proposed a revolving fund to buy up flooded properties via incentives that would allow homeowners to remain in the area without walking away from their mortgages. Baker had solid, bi-partisan support for his plan, but for some insane reason the White House balked at it. The Baker Plan's demise gave rise to the Road Home program.

Baker looked smart enough when he put together his plan. Now he looks like Einstein.

It's entirely possible that the best elements of the Road Home program (the grants) and the Baker Plan (a revolving fund) could be combined -- minus a Virginia company administering the new program, and minus the California and Florida sub-contractors telling us how to find local appraisers -- and then implemented by the local real estate and financial consortium described above.

And just to make sure Nagin is not tempted to micro-manage such a program, let it operate in several southeast Louisiana parishes, particularly those hardest hit by Katrina. Say, Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Tammany and Jefferson. Leaders from each parish could nominate one person (probably Dr. Ed Blakely from New Orleans) to fine-tune and oversee the plan, but the private real estate and financial sectors -- the folks who are already driving the recovery -- would actually implement it. Where appropriate, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) could also play a role, because not all homeowners want to come back. The added advantage of this idea is that it could jump-start NORA getting hold of properties that are just sitting there (and which are likely to continue sitting there).

Another advantage of this concept is that banks and real estate companies and appraisers and attorneys already know about things like finances, property values, rules and regulations -- and fiduciary duties. Hopefully, that would mean fewer roadblocks.

Nagin may have had something like this in mind when he floated the idea of localizing the Road Home program two weeks ago. "Let's take all the people registered for it in New Orleans and let us administer the program with local institutions," Nagin told a congressional subcommittee meeting in New Orleans on Feb. 21. "I think we can get it done for you very quickly."

It would be difficult to get it done any slower than ICF -- although, just to be sure, let me state categorically that Nagin and his day-to-day administration should not be embedded into the design and/or implementation of this concept.

Which brings us to the idea of a federal investigation into the award of ICF's contract.

Some things don't need a lot of explaining. This is one of them.

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