Last week the news hit of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) audit by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General that recommended that FEMA recoup $48 million from Erie County, in funds provided for the October Surprise Storm of 2006. The audit alleges Erie County violated bidding protocols by hiring local companies to do disaster recovery projects instead of sending the jobs out to bid.
Apparently the auditor for this report didn't know the law - particularly, the Local Community Recovery Act of 2006, an amendment to the Stafford Act, which President Bush signed into law in response to Hurricane Katrina. This one, Congress and the White House got right.
The law specifically directs local officials to use "local preference" to decide which contractors perform disaster recovery operations. The normal bidding process generally requires municipalities to use the lowest bidder, regardless of location. The local preference clause pushes governments affected by disaster to use contractors in their own community - owners and employees likely suffering as a result of the disaster. This puts money into the hands of the people that need it. Local businesses are also much more likely to take better care in performing the work, as they have a connection to the community, unlike businesses that come in from out of town.
The Poloncarz Administration received the audit findings and calmly went to work to address them. I discussed the process with Mark Cornell, Director of Policy and Communication for the County Executive who said via e-mail "In reality, this audit is of FEMA, not Erie County. We're just collateral damage. Technically speaking, we aren't required to even respond to the audit...that would be FEMA's prerogative. However, we absolutely are going to, given how horribly inaccurate it is."
Cornell explained the Administration has spent recent weeks reviewing the assertions of the report and formulating answers. Their conclusion was that Joel Giambra's 2006 administration complied with the Local Community Recovery Act, and did so under advice of representatives from both FEMA and the New York State Office of Emergency Management.
I was pleased that Poloncarz handled the problem in a timely and professional manner. They reviewed the issue, looked at past records, and recognized that the law supported Erie County. When the Collins Administration was confronted with real problems in the Erie County Holding Center, they just thumbed their noses at the federal government.
I was also pleased to see that Poloncarz invited Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw to join him for the press conference. After reading the Comptroller's letter to the Legislature where he insinuates several things about Poloncarz, like "While DHS released the findings of their audit on January 29th, 2013, our office was just made aware of their report" and, "I do not have information on whether or not the administration notified the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority or Legislature." The implication being that the County Executive's office hasn't shared information.
Personally, I am not sure why Poloncarz would share any of it with the Comptroller's Office, given Mychajliw's penchant for the premature press release. Since it wasn't an audit of Erie County, recoupment on these funds is not imminent, so the County Executive's team had time to research and formulate County positions, in this case good ones. Once they had answers, in a very timely fashion, they were able to report them without creating a panic.
Mychajliw even touted the cooperation on his Facebook page saying "This is exactly what the people we serve want from elected leaders: working together in a bi-partisan manner, in a unified front, to do what's best for Erie County taxpayers." If I had one criticism of the Mychajliw as Comptroller thus far it would be that working together takes a back seat to getting the press release or the letter or both out. That doesn't appear to be working together, it appears to be "Sweeps Week."
Poloncarz and company handled this like we should want all of our elected officials to handle every crisis. Not only did they do it calmly and quickly, they did it without inciting a local panic. This one's a win for Poloncarz. Hopefully others follow his lead.