Some Cities Still Hoping for Irma Money FEMA Says Is ‘Questionable’

In the reimbursement process, FEMA first releases funds to the state as it conducts a partial review of a municipality’s submission. Once the money goes to the state, the state starts its own review process before it releases any of the money to a municipality.

by Aaron Leibowitz and Sarah Blaskey, Miami Herald / November 27, 2019
AP

(TNS) - On Sept. 24, council members in the tiny village of El Portal passed an operating budget just shy of $2.5 million.

That same day, they got a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that questions $2 million the village sorely needs. FEMA, the letter said, is reviewing “questionable invoices” and other documents submitted by consultants who helped El Portal manage cleanup for Hurricane Irma in 2017.

It’s been 16 months since El Portal first submitted a reimbursement request to FEMA for Irma-related costs last July. A few days later, the village took out a risky $1.25 million loan to pay bills from a contractor that removed debris.

Today, the village still hasn’t paid off the debt. In July it reached a deal with its bank, Synovus, to get another year to pay off the loan, with the bank raising the interest rate from 2.01 to 2.05 percent.

But the letter from FEMA means it’s anyone’s guess when the village will finally get reimbursed — and that, when it does, a significant chunk of the money could be withheld if problems are substantiated.

Two other municipalities in Miami-Dade County, Miami Shores and Florida City, got identical letters from FEMA on Sept. 24, according to records obtained by the Miami Herald.

Miami Shores, which is directly north of El Portal, asked the federal government for $3.2 million to reimburse Irma-related cleanup costs, while Florida City asked for more than $5.2 million, according to FEMA.

A FEMA spokesman, David Mace, said the agency is working on a complete review of documents that the three municipalities submitted to justify their reimbursement requests. Once that review is complete, Mace said, FEMA will decide whether to refer the matter to its Office of Inspector General for further investigation.

The letters say consultants may have “generated some questionable invoices and related documents” in their submissions, adding that the issues include “billing discrepancies” and overcharging.

El Portal, Miami Shores and Florida City were the only municipalities in Florida to get the letters, Mace said. All three used the same contractor for debris removal.

FEMA officials first became aware of the problems while reviewing documents in late July or early August, Mace said. He declined to say which companies’ invoices, or what specific billing practices, sparked concern.

Waiting for the money

Officials in the three municipalities have expressed frustration not only with FEMA, but also with the Florida Division of Emergency Management for not turning over the money.

In the reimbursement process, FEMA first releases funds to the state as it conducts a partial review of a municipality’s submission. Once the money goes to the state, the state starts its own review process before it releases any of the money to a municipality.

Typically, FEMA audits only a sample of documents and waits until after the money is in a municipality’s hands before doing a more thorough review. Mace said that out of about 7,100 “projects” the agency has reviewed for Hurricane Irma, FEMA has denied at least some costs in about 1,000 cases.

But this is a different type of case. Because FEMA officials were alarmed by what they saw, they decided that a full review of submissions was needed right away, before the municipalities had gotten all of their money.

FEMA has turned over all of El Portal’s Irma-related costs to the state — $2,077,290 in total. But the state has delivered just over $145,000 of that to El Portal, the Division of Emergency Management said.

Florida City has received $343,000 out of $1.6 million obligated by FEMA. And the agency has earmarked more than $1.2 million to the state for Miami Shores, but the village hasn’t seen a penny.

A spokesman for the Division of Emergency Management declined to comment on why the municipalities haven’t received more of the reimbursement money.

But Mace pointed out that the state could pay the price if it sends money to municipalities for expenses that are later deemed invalid. In that case, FEMA would take the money back from the state. It would be up to the state to pry it back from the municipality.

Christia Alou, the village manager for El Portal, said officials there have “absolutely no reason” to think they won’t get full reimbursement, given that FEMA has turned over all of the funds to the state.

“We are awaiting final approval from the State of Florida to get all funds to repay our loan and replace our reserve funds,” Alou said in an email. “Perhaps the Miami Herald can find out for the municipalities why it is taking so long for the state to approve the reimbursements since we are already fully obligated.”

Tom Benton, the village manager for Miami Shores, said FEMA hasn’t given him any details about its concerns. Miami Shores Mayor Crystal Wagar, who was elected this past April, said village officials have reached out to FEMA “numerous times” to ask what’s going on but have gotten no response.

“We’re scratching our heads to try to determine what the issue is,” Wagar said.

Officials in Florida City, meanwhile, insist they’re in the clear. Rick Stauts, who leads Florida City’s community redevelopment agency, said FEMA officials told him the city sent the same invoice to FEMA twice, but that there were no other issues.

Stauts said FEMA has continued to earmark Irma reimbursement funds for Florida City even after the Sept. 24 letter was sent.

Mace declined to confirm whether Florida City’s problems amounted to just one duplicate invoice. He added that some reimbursements that were “in process” on Sept. 24 have since been obligated.

The submissions

As Hurricane Irma barreled its way toward South Florida in September 2017, municipalities across Miami-Dade County were bracing for what looked like a direct hit from a Category 5 storm. They were also scrambling to find consultants who could guide them through the cleanup and reimbursement process.

Florida City had initiated a bidding process to hire a debris removal company, as well as a consultant to monitor that removal work. A company called Looks Great Services won the debris removal contract a few days before the storm hit.

A consulting firm, Disaster Program & Operations, reviewed the proposal by Looks Great Services even though it did not yet have a city contract. DP&O officially won a contract a few days later, after the city changed the deadline for bid submissions and a power outage prevented more applications from coming in.

Irma didn’t make landfall as a Category 5 storm, but its high winds still toppled trees and left El Portal and Miami Shores — two municipalities known for their thick tree cover — in a bind. They hadn’t secured contracts before the storm, but under Florida law, they were able to piggyback on the contracts from Florida City. So DP&O and Looks Great Services began work in the two small villages.

DP&O hired monitors who were responsible for independently checking the hazardous limbs and trees that were removed from the streets, and for filling out logs to indicate what was being removed from which locations and corroborating the information with photos.

Looks Great Services, the debris removal company, also tracked what was removed so the two logs could be compared and reconciled. The documentation was submitted to FEMA with a request for reimbursement.

The Miami Herald obtained and reviewed hundreds of photographs and other documents that the municipalities submitted and identified several potential problems in El Portal and Miami Shores.

On Oct. 2, 2017, for example, one monitor logged 504 hazardous limbs removed from Miami Shores, ten times the daily average for monitors in El Portal and Miami Shores in the days after the storm. But the monitor submitted only seven photographs for that day — most of which appear to show low-lying brush.

FEMA rules mandate that a photograph be submitted for each hazardous limb, and that municipalities only be reimbursed for limbs greater than two inches in diameter that “pose an immediate threat” to public safety.

That same day in El Portal, a monitor working for DP&O reported 290 limbs removed but submitted just 60 corresponding photos, many of which show small shrubs and some of which appear to show trees on private property, which FEMA doesn’t cover unless they extend over a public roadway or pose a safety concern.

Frank Rollason, who oversees emergency management efforts for Miami-Dade County and was the village manager for North Bay Village during Hurricane Irma, said the photographs that municipalities submit “should justify debris being in the public right of way” and show that the debris is “blocking access to the sidewalks and the street and needs to be removed for public safety and access of emergency vehicles.”

A DP&O representative who worked with the three municipalities, Gabrielle Benigni, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. About a month after El Portal’s loan was approved, she told the Herald that DP&O hired and trained the monitors locally and that they were meticulous in their documentation.

“For every tree there is a ticket,” she said. “We have to make sure that everything is eligible.”

Benigni and her staff showed the Herald several examples of photo evidence submitted along with the logs, including one that appeared to show a palm tree with a single dead frond.

“They’re really deadly if they fall on you,” Benigni explained.

Another appeared to show a low-lying shrub. When questioned about what danger the shrub posed given how close it was to the ground, Benigni said: “They still remove it because it’s just part of what we do.”

Benigni added that the photo was counted as a whole tree, rather than a limb. Sometimes the photos don’t come out well, she said, adding of the monitors: “These are people without college [education]. ... That’s the first thing: We ask them, ‘can you read or write?’”

The Irma cleanup and reimbursement process was controversial in El Portal even before FEMA sent its letter. Last December, former El Portal Police Chief Ronnie Hufnagel was fired from the department after feuding with the village mayor, Claudia Cubillos, over the police role in overseeing debris removal.

Hufnagel maintained that the police never oversaw debris removal, despite the mayor’s public statements to the contrary.

An anonymous complaint to the county ethics commission last September also alleged that Cubillos and Alou, the village manager, had personal relationships with a debris hauler that “somehow colored their decision” to hire Looks Great Services. The commission found no evidence to support the claim.

A former councilman, Werner Dreher, was the only member of the five-person government to vote against the $1.25 million loan in 2018. During public meetings, Dreher said he had asked to review the submissions before voting to approve the loan, but the documents had never been produced by DP&O.

The Herald followed up with its own records request for the information and was quoted $6,751, a fee that Miami-Dade ethics commission executive director Jose Arrojo called “exorbitant.” Ultimately, the village backed down and provided the records free of cost.

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