- Associated Press - Sunday, October 15, 2017

More than six years after a deadly tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, the heavily damaged local school district has rebuilt.

Exactly how much of those costs the district will have to shoulder remains up in the air. The district is still haggling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the amount of money it’s due.

The school district has seven appeals disputing more than $70 million of denied costs pending at FEMA’s regional or national headquarters, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under the state Sunshine Law. The key issue is whether FEMA underestimated the cost to rebuild the schools, or whether the district is stretching FEMA rules to try to grasp as much cash as possible for its improved facilities.

The school district also has received money from an insurance settlement and voter-approved bond issue. But school officials said the FEMA funding disputes are financially straining the district, causing it to take out a $14 million, 10-year loan earlier this year while it awaits a final resolution from FEMA officials.

“I have a great deal of empathy for them, because as caretakers of taxpayer dollars, just simply because (applicants) send a bill, they shouldn’t be paying it. They need to validate that it went for its intended purpose,” said Ron Lankford, Joplin School District’s interim chief financial officer.

But he added: “In dealing with the federal bureaucracy … the reality is it is a very slow, cumbersome process.”

The consequences of the disputed federal money are compounded, because Missouri’s emergency management agency won’t pay any of its share of the disaster costs until all federal claims are finalized.

FEMA Public Assistance Director Christopher Logan acknowledges the agency has done a poor job resolving appeals quickly. But he says FEMA is trying to clear a backlog of appeals by next year while simultaneously dealing with a new wave of costly disasters that includes several Gulf Coast and Atlantic hurricanes and wildfires in the West.

Local governments and nonprofit organizations that are denied some or all of their requested disaster aid can appeal first to one of FEMA’s 10 regional offices. If denied again, they can lodge a second appeal with its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, roughly 280 first appeals are in the works, with 66 second appeals under review. That includes some stemming from disasters as far back as 17 years ago.

An AP analysis of more than 900 final appeals decisions over the past decade found that FEMA denied about two-thirds of them. Some were rejected because FEMA determined the repairs went beyond what was necessary; others because applicants failed to adequately document their costs. Still others were denied because they missed FEMA’s strict deadlines.

All three of those issues appear to be in play for the Joplin schools.

The May 22, 2011, tornado that killed 161 people in the Joplin area was part of a series of spring storms and floods across Missouri that resulted in about 1,800 FEMA disaster projects, totaling $174 million of approved federal aid so far. That includes about $40 million of approved federal money for dozens of Joplin school projects, according to FEMA records, though the district claims it should get more than twice that much.

Joplin school officials contend FEMA significantly underestimated the cost to rebuild the facilities when it capped the amount the district could receive for its relocated and improved schools.

The district cites an engineering analysis that the square footage of the old high school was underestimated by about 5 percent, and that FEMA should have allowed costs for an underground water drainage system needed to meet city codes. The district also claims FEMA should have approved a 17 percent cost hike because of a labor shortage and “adverse economic conditions.”

The appeals ask for the project caps to be raised by more than $70 million, which the district said would result in an additional $62 million of aid based on its actual costs.

FEMA’s acting regional director, Kathy Fields, denied one the schools’ appeals last month. She wrote that the alleged errors and omissions in FEMA’s cost estimates related to “hypothetical matters” that could have been discovered by school officials at the time of the original estimate and were brought to FEMA’s attention too late.

The school district plans to appeal again to FEMA headquarters.

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Follow David A. Lieb at: https://twitter.com/DavidALieb

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