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City claims it was misinformed on storm cleanup reimbursement


Columbus Mayor Robert Smith

Columbus Mayor Robert Smith



Nathan Gregory



J5 Broaddus acted as the city's project manager for debris cleanup following the April 28 tornado and then, a month later, bid out the job. 


The firm only did so after the Federal Emergency Management Agency notified the city that it could not be reimbursed for the cleanup work if the project manager contract was not competitively bid. 


Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong and Mayor Robert Smith said last week that Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials told city officials otherwise days after the storm, which is why the city authorized J5 to manage debris cleanup without seeking proposals first. 


The firm, which Columbus had a pre-existing contract with for project management not related to storm recovery, also submitted its own proposal and was awarded the job by the city.  


As a result, the city may receive an estimated $35,000 less than it would have if the contract was bid out before a company received the job. That amount is according to J5 estimates for the scope of work. The city is applying for approximately $700,000 in total reimbursement from FEMA, which Armstrong said he expects the city will receive. 


The only other bid was from Aequilibrium, a company in Vancleave, which is run by Adam Dial. Dial said J5 Broaddus Senior Project Manager Robyn Eastman called him and asked for a statement of qualifications and price rates for project managing of debris cleanup. Armstrong also said Eastman oversaw the process of requesting qualifications from companies. Dial's hourly rate for services was $135, while J5's was $72. Armstrong said Eastman contacted another group, who opted not to submit a quote.  


Eastman could not be reached for comment for this story. 


Armstrong said he does not believe J5 overseeing the process of seeking quotes instead of the city was unethical and that he was pleased with how they did so. 


"It's not unreasonable to question, by any means, but there's no question in my mind that nothing underhanded was done," Armstrong said. "I'm very comfortable with what (J5) did and how they handled it, not to mention the outstanding job they've done and what they continue to do. I have no reason to suspect and do not believe for one second that there was anything that was not totally above board." 


As for whether MEMA officials misinformed the city on what it could be reimbursed, MEMA director Robert Latham said he spelled out the correct procedures when he met with city and Lowndes County officials.  


"I advised the mayor that MEMA would reimburse the city for all costs as deemed eligible and reasonable by FEMA if it is determined that the city followed federal procurement guidelines for issuing the contract," Latham said. 


MEMA External Affairs Director Greg Flynn said it was not required of the city to advertise publicly in newspaper legals for the services because of emergency circumstances, but the city was supposed to seek competitive bids and receive MEMA approval once it selected a contractor. 


"You can't just roll disaster work into an existing regular contract," Flynn said. "You would have had to go out for a scope of work that you expected the company to do. It looks like what they did with the Vancleave company and J5 that they did this past week, that's exactly what they should have done at the time (just after the tornado). If they would have done that in the beginning, they would have been clear." 


Councilman Charlie Box said he was at the meeting between the city, county and MEMA and remembers hearing that a bidding process and MEMA approval was needed before cleanup could begin.  


"I thought we had to have pre-clearance, and that was my understanding from the meeting with MEMA," Box said. "What they said at that meeting was that they had to have their person approved before they started clearing. I stand behind what I thought I heard." 


The city hired five temporary monitors to ensure cleanup was in accordance with FEMA guidelines for reimbursement. Public works employees did the cleanup itself.  


Armstrong praised the efficiency and quickness of the cleanup and said the $35,000 at risk is a small price to pay compared to the $700,000 the city will likely receive.  


"Our only issue is will we get reimbursed for their approximately $35,000 in services. No, we probably won't," Armstrong said. "That's something we'll probably have to eat. We're going to get reimbursed in excess of $700,000 from FEMA. That's what people need to focus on. That's money that's going to come in to us that we wouldn't have had. Compared to that, the ($35,000) is a drop in the bucket."


Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.



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