Tonawanda News

August 31, 2013

Oct. storm audit settled

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

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.

At that point Tobe said the county simply refused to pay, challenging federal auditors to drop the issue or face a court challenge.

Poloncarz spokesman Peter Anderson said Friday the logjam was broken after a face-to-face meeting between the county executive and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was arranged at the behest of New York Sen. Charles Schumer in late June. Anderson said the meeting, held in Schumer’s office, gave local officials a chance to make their case, in person, that the various drafts of the audit were badly off base.

The end result was FEMA seeking to recoup only $705,000 — a figure county officials said they were content paying to put the issue to rest rather than keep fighting and potentially have to pay more.

“The county was sort of in the position where we felt there might be a more substantial payment they would be looking for,” Anderson said. 

The precise nature of the $705,000 in contested spending wasn’t immediately available, nor was the final revised version of FEMA’s audit. Poloncarz said in a statement county officials agreed on some finer points of the audit from the start and were willing to refund money where legitimate mistakes were made. He called the $705,000 figure “appropriate.”

A FEMA representative couldn’t be reached to comment Friday.

Anderson said the June meeting between Poloncarz and Fugate was the turning point in the whole saga.

“That’s when FEMA decided they need to look more into what Erie County was saying,” Anderson said. “The conversation (changed) after that. FEMA rechecked their audit and here we are today.”

Poloncarz credited Schumer for interceding on the county’s behalf.

“This is a positive development for the people of Erie County and would not have been possible without the strong advocacy of our Sen. Charles E. Schumer,” Poloncarz said in a press release. “Sen. Schumer is a forceful champion for our community and I greatly appreciate his efforts to assist us in rebutting the illogical recommendations proffered by the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General’s Office.”

Though it lives on in Western New York lore as a where-I-was-when tale of woe for many residents who endured it, Anderson said he’s happy it’s finally a closed case.

“It’s time to put the October 2006 storm finally, totally behind us,” he said.

Contact Managing Editor Eric DuVall at 693-1000, ext. 4112 or on Twitter @EricRDuVall.