The Woodward News

July 23, 2013

Frustration with FEMA continues to build

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — Five months after a blizzard that could ultimately cost the city and county nearly $500,000, no emergency funds have been released by FEMA despite classification of the blizzard as a covered emergency, said Woodward County Emergency Manager Matt Lehenbauer.

Lehenbauer made the comments at the weekly Woodward County Commissioners meeting Monday morning at the courthouse.

Consistent with the agenda, commissioners received an update on the status of a claim made to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for some costs related to the emergency clearing of roads during the snow storm that brought traffic to a halt February 25-26.

"Basically, they (FEMA) are saying that they do not cover snow removal," Lehenbauer said. "The only thing we have been able to negotiate with them is they would only cover plowing snow, one lane, directly for emergency vehicles to get to a call."

According to Lehenbauer, the city had two house fires, numerous stranded motorists and other medical emergencies during the storm.

That meant, Lehenbauer said, the costs associated with opening the roads for people who had been stranded in vehicles and the significant damage to many county roads falls onto the county and city governments.

Lehenbauer passed back to the commissioners, the original blizzard expense reports turned into Lehenbauer months ago when he first filed with FEMA for assistance.

Now, county officials must add needed data because of the newest requirements for information from FEMA officials, if they are to pay any claims.

Lehenbauer told commissioners he is not surprised by the difficulty working with the often cursed government agency.

"After how they treated us last year with the tornado, we were not surprised with how they have reacted regarding the blizzard," Lehenbauer said. "Really, the only surprise was that they declared us (an emergency) for the blizzard at all."

Since the week after the blizzard, Lehenbauer has been slogging through a growing number of reports and paperwork required by FEMA.

"They want us to prove what trucks went out, who was driving it, how many miles it went down to a tenth of a mile," Lehenbauer said. "I believe they are trying to make this process so burdensome that communities simply will not file at all."

Indeed, Harper County officials opted out of any help from FEMA for that reason, he said.

Avoiding any "help" from FEMA might just be the recommendation coming from many Katrina Victims. In 2011 a media storm followed when FEMA announced it would be asking some Katrina victims to repay nearly $600 million in mistakenly released funds during that disaster.

Nevertheless, Lehenbauer is frustrated by the political nature of the process. He told commissioners Monday he has a feeling that for the 5 months of paper pushing and endless bureaucratic red tape, there will be little yield.

"We finally have to ask ourselves if this is what the taxpayer who pays my salary wants me to do with my time," he said.

When it is all said and done, Lehenbauer believes FEMA will reimburse less than 20 percent of what the City of Woodward and Woodward County will shell out repairing and resurfacing roads badly damaged in the worst storm of the season.

And he has no way of even knowing those funds might be released.

"That was way back in February and this is July, and we are still trying to get those costs reimbursed," Lehenbauer said. "It has everything to do with our political status."

Lehenbauer pointed to what he called the "moving target of qualification for FEMA disaster aide," as one of the most telling symptoms of a badly broken system.

Recent cuts as a result of the sequester have also drilled into what the agency will provide to disaster victims, he said.

"This is why we need to keep doing a better job of managing our costs and budgets so that we can be prepared for these storms."

He pointed to the 2012 Woodward tornado as a good example of how City and County government worked together with private citizens and companies to defray the costs associated with what could have been a multi-million dollar clean up effort.

"Norman got hit by a small tornado the night before we got hit last year," Lehenbauer said. "They ended up with like a $3 million to $5 million dollar cleanup bill and because we worked together and watched out for fraud and relied on the local volunteers here, our costs for cleanup were closer to $200,000."

Lehenbauer

"That is why we are trying to bolster our preparedness even better," Lehenbauer said."Better training, better resources will allow us to take care of our own because we can't count on them. The entire town of Mutual could be wiped out and it would not meet their requirement."

Multiple calls to FEMA on Monday were not returned.



The Woodward County Education Facilities Authority

In other business, Attorney Jeff Raley of Norman based Floyd Law Firm, presented a proposal for the possible formation of a Woodward County Education Facilities Authority.

The authority would act as an oversight and approval authority for the 10-year, nearly $8 million bond issue that voters approved for Sharon-Mutual schools, Raley said.

Forming the authority is necessary when schools attempt to build large projects so that the school district can borrow enough money up front to complete construction in a timely manner, according to Raley.

"Under state law, schools cannot issue debt more than 10 percent of their net valuation," Raley said. "The authority would allow the school to build the project now and allow parent and students the access to those facilities now."

That means instead of parsing the project together spending no more than $800,000 per year over the 10-year life of the bond issue, Sharon-Mutual schools could have their construction done within the next two years, said Jeff Thompson, Sharon-Mutual Superintendent, who was present at the meeting.

"This is the same way they did the project at Shattuck School District through Ellis County," Thompson said.

Raley referenced problems for school districts in years past, before the formation of these types of authorities that act as a conduit to funding for large school bond issue projects.

"In the old days, you'd go by a school gym and notice how it would have different colored brick on two parts of the gym or even unfinished projects," Raley said.

That was because the school was limited to what they could legally borrow against their own district net valuation and what the bond issue brought in, year to year, he said.

"It is hard to go back to a public asking for funds to build projects when they never see anything completed," he added.

In the case of Sharon-Mutual, there are large construction plans for several new classrooms that include safe rooms, as well as some improvements to the science and math building in Mutual that also include safe rooms, Thompson said.

The formation of the Woodward County Education Facilities Authority would allow those projects to be completed quickly and then paid out in a series of payments related to the sale of the bonds, Raley said.

"We have to have this authority formed," Thompson said "Other schools in Woodward County could also benefit in a similar way from the formation of the authority."

District No. 2County Commissioner, Randy Johnson made a motion to table any action regarding the formation of the authority until the District Attorney could read the proposal and approve it. Vernie Matt seconded the motion.

District No. 1 County Commissioner Tommy Roedell was on leave Monday, attending a meeting.