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Tennessee lawmaker proposes bill to force charities to distribute disaster relief funds within two years

east nashville tornado damage.png
Waverly Flood
Posted at 5:29 PM, Feb 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-20 19:28:03-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — When disaster strikes, you can be sure that Tennesseans will not hesitate to open their hearts and their wallets.

But a state lawmaker believes that money does not always get to the people who need it when they really need it.

Now he's proposed legislation that would give charities a deadline to distribute the funds and would remove that money if it still hasn't been spent.

After the historic flooding in Humphreys and Dickson Counties in 2021, state Senator Mark Pody told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that people he knows needed help.

"And they weren’t getting help, and we talked and there were nonprofits that still had money. And it seems that they didn’t want to release that money because they were saying we might need it for long-term," Pody explained.

That's why the Republican senator from Lebanon is now sponsoring Senate Bill 594 which, if approved, would require charities that collect money after declared disasters in Tennessee to spend or distribute that money on disaster relief within two years.

Under Pody's bill, any money not spent within two years would be transferred from the charity to a fund managed by TEMA and used for future disaster relief in the state.

"The people that gave that money had the anticipation that that money would’ve been used for those individuals immediately. After a year or two, there’s other resources that they can get. It’s no longer an emergency," Pody stated.

Hal Cato is the new president of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

"I understand his [Senator Pody's] perspective and his point," Cato said.

But Cato disagrees with Pody's legislation and its timeline.

"Recovery is not a sprint. It’s a marathon," Cato explained.

The CFMT collects and distributes donations to nonprofits after disasters to help those most affected.

The Community Foundation was not the organization, according to Pody, that prompted his bill, but the foundation would be affected by the legislation since it generally does not immediately distribute all of the money it takes in.

"Usually, local dollars are not touched until FEMA and insurance has been exhausted, and that doesn’t happen overnight. The reason that is is we want those without those resources to have what they need. So, it’s all about ensuring that there’s equity and fairness in the process and doing it a thoughtful way and not in an immediate knee-jerk response," Cato shared.

The Community Foundation's grant process typically takes years.

It took three years for the CFMT to spend all of the money after the 2010 flooding and two years after the Christmas day bombing in downtown.

And while it's been nearly three years now since the March 2020 tornadoes, the Community Foundation still has millions of dollars in donations that have not been spent.

Of the more than $12.5 million the Community Foundation took in, it has given more than $8.5 million in grants to nonprofits, a million dollars to its Metro Disaster Fund, and another quarter of a million dollars to its Tennessee Emergency Disaster Fund, both after wind and flood damage in 2021.

But there is still more than $2.5 million sitting in the tornado account.

"Holding that emergency money that was given to them through the kindness of Tennesseans and then just hold that money, that’s wrong. If they don’t have a plan for that money, we need to get that money to other emergencies where people had wanted it to go and help somebody immediately," Pody suggested.

Pody believes more than two years is too long.

"After a year or two, the people have gone on with their lives, gotten their houses fixed. They’ve got their jobs back. They are back into normal society, normally working, and they are no longer saying, 'Hey, we need this money. Where is it?'" Pody said.

When we shared Pody's comments with Hal Cato, he responded, "Yeah, come and spend some time driving around communities that have suffered and are struggling and talk to survivors and those families. It’s more than rebuilding a structure and a system. It’s looking at the long-term, mental, physical, and financial and emotional needs that survivors have."

Pody then made sure to emphasize that he supports nonprofits involved in disaster relief.

"We like the work that you’re doing. We, we really really do. I don’t want to step on any charity," he explained.

But he added that he also wants what's best for disaster victims and those who donate to help them.

"If the reason was to collect it for that emergency, let’s spend it on that emergency," Pody said.

But Hal Cato believes, in most cases, what's best is not rushing the process.

"It’s a long-term process and we need to look at that and ensure that we are not putting in just an arbitrary timeline on something because it feels good, and instead really look at what the needs of survivors are and be there for their moment of need," Cato replied.

Senator Pody is talking with charities across the state now, including the Community Foundation, and getting input from them.

Meanwhile, the Community Foundation has a committee that is meeting to decide what to do with the $2.5 million dollars left in the tornado recovery fund. And when they decide, we'll let you know.