Though federal report says $18M misspent by MEMA, local governments do not expect to owe money

March 17, 2010

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency is in the process of getting in touch with local entities, including governments, after a federal audit said the agency misspent almost $18 million in Hurricane Katrina grant money.

Local governments contacted by The Mississippi Press said they are either working with MEMA or have not yet heard from the agency but do not expect to owe anything.

MEMA Director Mike Womack said he “very strongly” disagrees with the audit, which includes about $9.5 million in overpayments to governments and nonprofits for debris removal and emergency protective services from FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Office. The remainder primarily involves Jackson accounting firm Horne LLP.

The report, from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s Office, lists 10 projects involving eight entities.

The projects are identified by number only. MEMA declined to identify them until all are notified.

“The applicants represented by the project worksheet numbers have not been informed there are any potential problems with their projects, which we don’t feel there are,” said MEMA spokesman Jeff Rent.

Some Mississippi municipalities have at least 100 projects related to the storm, he said, and should discrepancies be found, the amount in question would be deducted from other projects. “We’ve had a lot of scared people calling us asking if they’ll have to write a check,” Rent said.

The report says MEMA should seek reimbursements from entities that were overpaid, and that those funds should be deposited into the state Treasury.

Jackson County Administrator Alan Sudduth said despite not yet having a chance to go over the report, he feels “pretty comfortable that our fees related to debris removal are solid.”

“(The office of the inspector general) did a preliminary review of the costs several years ago,” Sudduth said.

Pascagoula, meanwhile, said it owed about $200,000 to MEMA for an overestimate of extra police protection costs directly after the storm, but MEMA underpaid on other projects and “it all balanced in the end,” according to City Manager Kay Kell. That has nothing to do with the current audit, she said.

The city does not anticipate a discrepancy related to debris removal, because its costs were some of the lowest in south Mississippi, she said. Pascagoula reports that MEMA has paid it $5.13 million of $5.68 million for debris projects.

Ocean Springs said that its grant writer is “in correspondence with MEMA” and has no official statement at this time.

Moss Point Mayor Aneice Liddell pointed out that Katrina funds are a constantly moving target as projects and the funds required for them are assessed and reassessed. To help with Katrina projects, Moss Point hired accounting firm Broaddus and Associates, which could not be reached for comment.

Gautier reports that it is comparing financial information with MEMA, said grant writer Michelle Troyer. She said it appears that MEMA may have double paid on some projects.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, FEMA allocated millions for debris cleanup to south Mississippi governments as a single project, but later decided to split it into numerous separate contracts.

Womack said that he does not think “MEMA did anything wrong in this matter and will continue to fight it.

“This is not about saying ‘leave us along, don’t bother us,'” he said. “But it needs to be a process that focuses on identifying problems and permanent solutions, not making recommendations to take money back from local governments.”

By Kaija Wilkinson

News from The Mississippi Press 

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