We seem to have a left hand-right hand problem here. One part of the federal government is telling Erie County that it grossly misused federal storm recovery funds after the October 2006 surprise snowstorm, and wants $48.5 million back.
Another part, meanwhile, appears to unambiguously authorize precisely what then-Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra did with the $48.5 million provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help clean up the severe and widespread damage done by heavy snow on trees that remained fully leafed out.
Members of the Western New York congressional delegation and current County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz are rejecting – vigorously – the contention by the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security that Erie County must repay the money. They shouldn’t back down.
The argument revolves around the auditor’s contention that Erie County violated the law by awarding cleanup contracts solely to local companies, rather than seeking competitive bids. But Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Poloncarz say the audit ignores two laws that took effect before the storm hit – one of them only eight days before – that specifically allow local officials to give preference for hiring local businesses in federally declared disasters.
That isn’t to say that Giambra made a wise decision. As a 2006 news story pointed out, the county paid 50 percent to 85 percent more for the same cleanup tasks as some suburban communities. It’s not a wise use of tax dollars and such preferences can open the door to other abuses.
Still, the laws cited by Poloncarz – previously the Erie County comptroller – and the two congressmen appear to sanction the approach taken by Giambra, who was unapologetic about using local contractors for the work. Even Collins, the renowned cost-cutter, defended the decision, saying the work needed to be done immediately.
The audit also contends the county inappropriately claimed $9 million in unsupported, undocumented cleanup costs. The county had reported that the documentation for that work had been lost, but Poloncarz said those records have now been located.
These shouldn’t be difficult questions to resolve, though they are severely annoying ones to have to deal with more than six years after the fact. Washington might want to recalibrate its rules on using local contractors, if it can do so without delaying critical recovery efforts, but until then, the county appears to have the law and two congressmen on its side.
That should suffice.