After telling Erie County earlier this year that it would have to repay more than $48 million in disaster relief used for the cleanup from the October 2006 snowstorm, FEMA re-evaluated a recent audit and has reduced its requested payback to about $705,000.
The dramatic reduction was the result of protests by local officials and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who, with Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, met with FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate earlier this summer to press the case for Western New York.
“This is really great news,” Schumer said Friday about the reversal. “It seemed so unfair. The county worked with FEMA, and I worked with FEMA, right after (the storm) happened, and all of a sudden they come back and say, ‘You didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s.’ ”
The freak early-season snowfall in October 2006 shattered and felled thousands of trees and branches in full leaf across northern Erie County, cutting power to more than 400,000 people and closing hundreds of roadways to traffic and emergency services. The county eventually received $55.4 million to cover costs of clearing the roads, and removing and disposing of the trees.
This spring, almost seven years later, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General Office’s released an audit saying county officials did not follow established regulations for awarding contracts in a “fair and open competition” – even though FEMA had approved the procedures initially.
Poloncarz protested the audit’s conclusions to Fugate and Homeland Security, and contended that the county had acted appropriately throughout the cleanup process.
In a statement Friday, he said, “I feel like Erie County has been vindicated by FEMA’s response, and now we can all put that disaster finally behind us.”
When Schumer and Poloncarz met with Fugate in June in Washington, D.C., the administrator agreed to an independent review of the inspector general’s audit.
“The inspector general had no understanding of what happened there, what that city looked like after the storm,” Schumer said. “He seemed to think the county should have taken months to follow procedures. I mean, what was the point of this? They found no wrongdoing, the money went where it was supposed to. It was just bureaucratic problems.”
In its report, FEMA noted that it now believes Erie County did successfully compete for bids for debris removal and was within regulations when it awarded those contracts. It also writes that the county followed state and local laws as well as federal regulations, even to the point of replacing early, more expensive contracts with more reasonably priced agreements once the recovery situation stabilized.
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw issued a statement Friday saying that, had the county been forced to repay $48.5 million to FEMA, it would have “decimated” the county’s unassigned fund balance of approximately $88.3 million.
Poloncarz, who credits county staffers for their work in proving the county’s case, indicated that his office had never disputed a few of the claims in the inspector general’s audit .
“Therefore,” he said in a prepared statement, “in order to put this matter behind us, we concur with FEMA’s findings and will return $705,640.93 of federal funding now sought in response to the October 2006 storm recovery.”