City may lose some storm cleanup reimbursement

June 18, 2014 10:50:29 AM

Nathan Gregory - [email protected]


Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong notified city councilmen Tuesday that the city is at risk of losing about $35,000 in storm cleanup reimbursement from the April 28 tornado. 


Armstrong said the city received approval from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency shortly after the storm to contract with project managing firm J5 Broaddus to oversee debris cleanup and reimbursement. However, council attorney Jeff Turnage said he received word from an attorney with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on May 29 that the city was required to seek proposals to manage the cleanup instead of using its pre-existing contract with J5 Broaddus. 


By that time, cleanup had been taking place for a month, Armstrong said, but a request for proposal was put together and the city received two bids -- one from J5 Broaddus and another from a company in Vancleave, Mississippi. Armstrong said he, Turnage and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith scored the two bids and found that J5 had the lowest and best bid and recommended that the council officially award project managing services to J5. 


Armstrong said there was no requirement that the city had to advertise publicly in newspaper legals for the service. Proposals could be sought through phone calls to companies offering the service, he said. 


"We don't have a lot of hope that FEMA and MEMA are going to approve this," Armstrong said. "What we think we're doing is setting ourselves up to be able to make an appeal to them because quite frankly, we were led to believe that everything was fine until a week before it was over... We were led from day one to believe that this agreement that you have will work and we... find out not from MEMA but from FEMA that you've got to go back and do basically what (Lowndes) County did initially, but the county didn't already have the services (of J5)." 


Armstrong said the city expects to be eligible for about $700,000 in reimbursement costs from FEMA and said only $35,000 of it could be lost due to the misunderstanding. Supplemental information provided to councilmen was not included in the document the city makes available to the public at the meeting. Armstrong provided that information to The Dispatch. The information contains proposals from J5 and Aequillibrium, the company from Vancleave, as well as the score sheets from Armstrong, Turnage and Smith. J5's hourly pricing for project managing fees on debris cleanup was $72, while Aequillibrium's was $135. Nothing about correspondence between the city and FEMA regarding the estimated total cleanup cost or the amount that will likely not be reimbursed is contained in what was provided to the council. 


Turnage said FEMA officials indicated they reserve the right not to reimburse because the agreement was in place before the storm, but also said they may consider paying what they consider to be a fair and reasonable cost for the services. 


"I think that is a compelling reason to go ahead and approve this because I think it establishes what the fair cost is," Turnage advised. 


Councilmen then asked Armstrong who led the city to believe the city could use J5 Broaddus. 


"I think MEMA did," Armstrong said. "I didn't have this discussion with them, but I think they did. We never got any indication that there would be an issue until May 29, about a week before (J5 was) about to finish everything up." 


Smith added that the issue was discussed when city officials met with MEMA Director Robert Latham. 


"At the time, it was our understanding that there wasn't a problem," Smith said. "Three or four weeks later, we find out there was a problem." 


Councilman Bill Gavin then asked if the council needed to move forward with authorizing J5 Broaddus for the services the firm had already done. 


"Do we need to move forward with this project to go ahead and authorize J5 to do these services for $35,000 on a gamble that we may get the $700,000?" he asked. 


Armstrong said the $700,000 was "a separate thing" and reiterated that the city may not be reimbursed for $35,000 of what J5 charged. 


"We may. We don't know," Armstrong said. "I think we definitely need to move forward because if we don't do anything, we can kiss that $35,000 goodbye."

Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.