Tonawanda News

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May 24, 2013

FEMA revises first October storm audit

Tonawanda News — Erie County officials are swinging back at a revised audit by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, which says county officials misspent some $48 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants earmarked for cleaning up after the 2006 October storm.

A revised version of the audit, the first version of which initially released in March, was put out Thursday. As was the case in the first draft, the audit recommends the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, seek to recoup $48 million from the county. 

FEMA officials will decide sometime in the next month whether or not to follow through on the audit’s findings.

Deputy Erie County Executive Richard Tobe said if FEMA does try to get the money back they’ll have a fight on their hands.

“Should things go badly, we’re not paying,” Tobe said. “We’ll go to court and if it has to, the judges will decide. But I don’t think we’ll get there.”

County Executive Mark Poloncarz released a statement in the wake of the revised audit, noting the central issue in the first draft — that county officials at the time gave preference to local firms and didn’t make provisions for contractors outside the region to bid on the storm clean up work — wasn’t even mentioned in the audit’s second draft. Of the $48 million in question, auditors said $39.4 million should be recouped because of a bidding process that “limited competition and disregarded federal contracting regulations.”

That allegation isn’t mentioned in the audit’s second draft.

“(The revised audit) repudiated its major findings and created multiple new and previously unstated reasons and alleged factors in continuing to demand that the County repay FEMA $39.4 million,” Poloncarz said.

In the county’s response to the first audit, Tobe pointed out the federal law cited by auditors had changed — coincidentally enough just days before the storm took place. President George W. Bush had signed a new federal law that reversed FEMA policy on disaster response spending. Federal law now explicitly instructs FEMA grant recipients to spend the money locally when possible as a means to jumpstart the local economy following a major disaster rather than cast a wider net in hopes of reducing costs.

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