Tonawanda News

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February 28, 2013

FEMA: October storm money was misspent

Tonawanda News — Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz fired back at an audit recommending the Federal Emergency Management Agency reclaim $48 million in disaster relief from the 2006 October storm auditors said the county misspent.

The audit, conducted by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, charges officials at the time preferred local firms in the clean-up effort without considering outside contractors that could have done it cheaper.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz shot back, saying officials at the time were only following verbal guidance from FEMA representatives in the wake of a massive storm that downed thousands of trees and knocked out power to tens of thousands, many for more than a week.

“There is absolutely no evidence of improper use of these funds,” Polancarz said. “It has also become clear that the bulk of the funds were spent within the spirit of federal regulations.”

The audit claims that then-county executive Joel Giambra gave preference to local contractors, “limiting the competitive pool.”

According to the audit, giving preference to local contractors violates federal grant regulations and FEMA guidelines for awarding contracts, a claim Poloncarz disputes. 

“Federal auditors are legally wrong to recommend the recoupment of $48 million in federal disaster funds based on ‘local preference’ comments made by county executive Giambra at the time,” Poloncarz said. “Federal law in effect at the time of the storm specifically directs that in federally declared disasters, local officials give explicit preferences for hiring local businesses to perform disaster recovery.” 

The audit also says that Erie County claimed to receive verbal approval from FEMA over the contracts in question — but could not get approval in writing. 

Whether or not the county received approval from a FEMA representative may not even matter. The audit says a FEMA representative does not have the authority to nullify federal regulations verbally or in writing.

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