Tonawanda News — Erie County officials — not to mention Erie County taxpayers — can finally put the 2006 October storm to rest.
After a months-long back-and-forth during which auditors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency originally sought to recoup $48 million in aid to clean up after the storm, Erie County taxpayers will return only $705,000.
The issue began following an audit released in March by the FEMA inspector general’s office that claimed Erie County officials in the Giambra administration misspent $48 million in grants in the days following the early-season storm, which downed thousands of trees and knocked out power for more than a week in many communities.
At first, FEMA auditors alleged Erie County officials erred by offering contracts to local firms without considering out-of-state companies that might have been able to do the work cheaper. Auditors also said county officials couldn’t provide paperwork backing up some $9 million in contracts awarded for storm clean-up.
County officials under the present administration, led by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, vehemently denied those claims, calling the audit process arbitrary and its findings in conflict with advice given by FEMA representatives at the time of the storm.
Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe told the Tonawanda News in May that auditors’ claims weren’t even in line with federal law, which changed just a few days before the storm when President George W. Bush signed a measure expressly requiring municipalities receiving FEMA aid to spend the dollars locally where possible as a means to jumpstart the local economy following a disaster.
A second draft of the audit was subsequently released, dropping that allegation but raising other concerns — and still recommended the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, recoup the $48 million. In that draft, auditors charged among other things the county failed to seek out minority- and women-owned firms for a portion of the work — another charge Tobe said wasn’t valid because municipalities aren’t required to jump through such hoops when a federal disaster has been declared.