A federal audit says Erie County should pay back $48.5 million in disaster relief costs associated with the 2006 'October Surprise' snowstorm.
In a report dropped on the county days ago, auditors from the Homeland Security Inspector General's office are challenging the vast majority of the $53 million checked.
The audit says then-county executive Joel Giambra violated rules governing the awarding of contracts for the massive clean-up by insisting on hiring only local contractors, which is out of compliance with FEMA guidelines which call for national searches. It also says FEMA reimbursed the county $9 million for inadequately supported costs.
Current Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the county endured "numerous audits" by FEMA and NYSEMO (New York State Office of Emergency Management ) at the time to prove that the county's spending dollars were appropriate and were "signed off every time." Poloncarz was the county's comptroller at the time.
"I think someone in D.C. has got an ax to grind and they're trying to show that FEMA is not being run correctly," Poloncarz said.
Poloncarz says in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, federal law was changed before the storm to force local preference to speed cleanup.
"That is precisely what Erie County Executive Giambra did at the time, as well as what other Erie County officials did. Frankly, as an attorney and formerly Erie County's comptroller...I find it shocking that federal auditors would completely ignore such a well-known law when trying to justify their findings are recommending penalizing the county for following the law," Poloncarz said, responding from the Rath Building Wednesday afternoon,
County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, a Republican, said he would stand "side by side" with Poloncarz to fight for the interests of Erie County.
"This is a recommendation from Homeland Security to FEMA and we're going work together as hard as we can to make sure that that recommendation is rejected," Mychajliw said.
Governor Andrew Cuomo was informed of the audit by a reporter at a news conference Wednesday in Albany.
"$48 million?," responded Cuomo. "That is a big number and would be a big problem. I'll take a look at it."
The early-season storm that began on October 12, 2006, dumped as many as 27 inches of heavy, wet snow in the Buffalo area over two days, crippling the region. There were three fatalities, sustained power outages, and it is estimated that 90 percent of the city's trees, which still had their leaves, were damaged.
Also citing what is known as the Stafford Act, Rep. Brian Higgins (D-Buffalo) says he sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Inspector General on February 8 stating, "this attempt to foist this bill on the property-taxpayers of Erie County is misguided, as it is inconsistent with applicable law.”
Higgins says he is expecting a response from the OIG this week.