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7/10/13: Bee News - Working to Protect REsidents from Unjustified Storm Cleanup Costs


MARK POLONCARZ
July 10, 2013

This month I would like to bring up a bit of Erie County’s past, as well as what my office is doing to prevent that past from coming back to haunt us today. I am referring to the “Surprise Storm” of October 2006, an event that is forever etched upon the minds of residents who experienced it. A heavy, unexpected mid-October snowfall resulted in the destruction of countless trees, left thousands of people without power, closed schools for a week, and disrupted our lives in numerous ways as Erie County struggled to regain a sense of normalcy. Along with the storm and its aftermath came many stories of selflessness, sharing, and compassion as our area once again lived up to its “good neighbors” image, with residents everywhere pitching in to help their communities get back on their feet.

That 2006 storm brought out the best in our community. However, nearly seven years after the storm’s snows melted and the last tree limbs were cleaned up we are still dealing with the storm’s after-effects. I am referring to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s audit, initially issued in January, which claims that Erie County should repay $48.5 million in storm-related cleanup costs because the county did not adhere to proper hiring practices regarding local companies during the massive cleanup, a claim made despite the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved of and signed off on all cleanup activities back in 2006. The audit was later revised to state Erie County did not follow other procurement guidelines during the cleanup.

In late June, I was pleased to join Senator Charles Schumer and FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate in the Senator’s Washington, D.C. office to discuss the audit and review the findings. The meeting provided me an opportunity to present to Administrator Fugate the numerous reasons why Erie County should not be held liable for recoupment of the funds used during the extensive cleanup. I would like to thank Senator Schumer and Congressman Brian Higgins for meeting with me in Washington, for their close attention to this matter, and for their assistance in facilitating this critical dialogue.

Erie County did nothing wrong in the days following the October storm.  We acted expeditiously and fully within the confines of federal law in handling the cleanup. It is wrong for the Inspector General  to recommend repayment of the $48 million seven years later. Following that unprecedented weather event, the most important jobs facing the county were a cleanup of herculean proportions and the need to get our area moving again. True to its nature, the region of “good neighbors” lived up to its billing as a place where people care about each other and work together. I will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure this effort, which drew us closer as a community, doesn’t result in a bill seven years later.