Monday, May 01, 2017
FEMA documents show R-8 agreed to budget, then ignored it completely
Though the new East Middle School would be bigger than the one that was destroyed in the May 22, 2011 tornado, FEMA would only pay for the cost of rebuilding East the way it was.
"Just that square footage," Huff said. "Not the additional square footage. They won't pay for an upgrade, I don't think, unless we do some arm-twisting." (Note: Huff's comments are featured in the podcast below.)
More than five years have passed. Huff is no longer employed by the Joplin R-8 School District and FEMA documents obtained by the Turner Report through a Sunshine Law request indicate that any arm-twisting that was done was completely unsuccessful.
The documents reveal the district officials agreed to FEMA estimates while already knowing they planned to ask for more money.
Among the other revelations in the documents, Joplin R-8:
-Missed one FEMA deadline after another, some of them by as much as three years.
-Asked for more federal taxpayers' money, but provided almost no documentation to support those requests.
-Asked for money for damages that FEMA photos indicate were either overstated and/or non-existent.
-Agreed to a limit of $155 an hour for some of those working on the project, but submitted requests far above that amount, up to as much as $430 an hour.
-Violated FEMA regulations from the beginning by hiring a high-powered and high-dollar firm to guide the district through the recovery process without putting the job up for bids.
-Possibly violated the Sunshine Law during a December 2016 Board of Education meeting when the same firm was hired to help the district as it tried to deal with FEMA paperwork. Again, the firm was hired without taking bids.
-Told FEMA the district's entire focus was on "rebuilding and reopening its educational facilities" and then they would focus on how much it cost.
The first post on the FEMA documents will focus on the denial of Joplin R-8's appeal of FEMA's denial for work done on the grounds at East Middle School.
FEMA rejected the district's request to be reimbursed $1,505,223.40- $1,039,846.03 for "errors and omissions" and $459,292.28 for a "cost escalation claim."
The government agency provided its reasoning in a letter sent March 2 from Region VII Acting Regional Administrator Kathy Fields to Interim Superintendent Norm Ridder and SEMA Director Ernie Rhodes.
The biggest problem was stated at the beginning of the letter. "The appeal was submitted over three years after FEMA's determination in awarding the sub-grant obligation." The deadline for the appeal was 60 days after the obligation.
The request was for funding to cover replacement of asphalt, parking and play areas, concrete curbs and sidewalks and the district had three ways to increase the final amount it received on the East grounds, but failed to come through on any of those.
In the first appeal, sent in July 2016, district officials sent FEMA more than 9,000 pages of supporting documents, according to the letter. While that may sound like more than enough, there were problems.
The R-8 evidence consisted of an"unindexed, unnumbered, and unorganized compilation of documents from various dates with multiple copies of the same documents with no explanation of how the documents were relevant and support the issues in the appeal."
FEMA sent the district a request for more information, trying to discover how the 9,000+ pages showed the government should spend more money on the East project.
The district never answered that request, but sent 283 additional exhibits for FEMA to consider.
Though FEMA officials were not obligated to consider the exhibits and documents, they did, but still found nothing to show federal taxpayers should cover the $1.5 million request.
A simple explanation for that can be found in the information district officials sent to FEMA, indicating they were aware it was going to cost more money right from the beginning and used that as an explanation for not filing appeals on a timely basis.
From the first appeal:
Fundamentally, Joplin Schools agreed with the funding obligated in PW 575v3, but believed that additional funding was required. Thus, until FEMA was apprised of the adjustments requested by Joplin Schools, it had not rendered a determination capable of being appealed.
In the appeal, district officials made it clear they believed they could wait until close out to offer their revised totals, even though FEMA regulations stipulate that all changes must be approved on a timely basis.
The district's argument fell on deaf ears. "By that reasoning," Fields wrote, "(the district) agreed to the cap, knew it would be wrong, then want to raise it as an issue at closeout."
The denial letter also indicates that the district may have provided inaccurate information on when or if damages took place at East. District officials asked for funding to cover serious damages that had been done to the grounds.
The request was not made on a timely basis, but was sent with the 2016 appeal. FEMA asked for documentation, including photos, of the damages. The district provided no documentation, but three FEMA photos taken during a 2011 inspection showed the tornado had done only little damage in areas described in the request, while nine other photos of the claimed area showed no damage at all.
The district had 60 days from March 2 when the FEMA letter was received to appeal the decision. Today marks 60 days.
(The second part of the denial letter dealt with the district's hiring of Witt O'Brien to handle the tornado recovery projects..More about that in an upcoming post.)
(Photo: CFO Paul Barr explains FEMA funding to former R-8 board member Debbie Fort during a 2014 Board of Education meeting.)