Tonawanda News

March 6, 2013

OUR VIEW: FEMA audit way off the mark

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to help Americans respond to crises, not create them — but that’s precisely what FEMA has done in demanding Erie County taxpayers give back $48 million in aid from the 2006 October storm.

An audit by FEMA’s inspector general contends $48 million given to Erie County to respond to the storm may have been misspent because officials gave preference to local contractors to help remove the thousands of downed trees in the storm’s wake. This, despite verbal permission from FEMA representatives at the time, attested to by politicians of both parties.

They also point to federal laws that permit municipalities to use a local-first approach.

Federal law isn’t really necessary, though. All you need is a dose of common sense to see why prizing local contractors makes sense. If priorities are in order, officials shouldn’t be pinching pennies when tens of thousands are without power, roads are impassable and the infirm need access to medicine and medical care.

Local contractors are already here so why should residents sit in their cold, dark homes waiting for crews from who-knows-where to arrive and start the work?

Given FEMA’s track record perhaps the obvious bears repeating: The first priority in disaster recovery is recovering. In October 2006, that meant getting trees off people’s houses, out of the roads and turning the lights back on.

Erie County isn’t blameless in this fiasco, however. FEMA points out of the $48 million it’s seeking back, $9 million is for work that wasn’t documented at all. County officials said the records have been lost. They can win an argument on the merits that they used the contractors best suited for the job, but they should be able to say — and show — how they spent the money.

Admitting “we lost the receipt” is unacceptable.

But as for the bulk of the funds, county lawyers should be ready to take their case to court — and Western New York’s congressional delegation should consider themselves on call for some good, old-fashioned grandstanding.

As for the next time FEMA’s resources are needed to help get life back to normal, officials be warned: Your first priority might be to dig out from a blizzard, restore electricity and get sick people to their doctors. FEMA, on the other hand, is more worried about counting beans.