TEMA Slow in Making Disaster Recovery Payments

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency knows about a state audit that shows public disaster recovery money is getting paid slowly but a spokesman said there are three public assistance employees and the agency is working as fast as it can.
The performance audit by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office said TEMA takes an average of three months, sometimes longer, to repay local costs for cleanup and repair of public property after a disaster.
“Delaying passing through of funds to county and local governments and certain nonprofit organizations can delay cleanup and recovery work, which can elevate costs and increase problems,” the audit said.

TEMA spokesman Jeremy Heidt told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the agency knows there’s a hardship on local communities (http://bit.ly/rqp7Q6).
With a budget of $12.4 million this year, TEMA works under the state’s Military Department to coordinate disaster readiness and response. It distributes grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others to aid disaster response and prevention.
Heidt said, “some of that is out of our control,” referring to the audit’s criticism of delay in the office of contracts review and the Department of Military.
“We’re definitely working as fast as we can,” he said.
Heidt said legislators last year authorized new staff but the agency has just begun the hiring process. Some other states are helping.
The audit said that In fiscal 2011, TEMA handed out about $60 million in disaster relief and homeland security grants.
There is a backlog, partly from May 2010 floods that inundated Nashville, affected 49 counties and generated 6,000 claims under the Public Assistance Grant program.
“This year we had 66 counties (from the late April tornadoes), some of them multiple disasters,” Heidt said. “All the projects from that are still being written.”
Some local government agency and utility officials agree, but they also are sympathetic to what they see as an overworked, understaffed agency.
Lee Norris, deputy director of Chattanooga’s Public Works Department, said the city has applied for $3 million for tornado cleanup.
“We were able to front the money, but I can see where smaller communities really can have some problems,” Norris said.
In Bradley County, Emergency Management Agency Director Troy Spence said it’s a problem.
“Past disasters have been, like, a half-million dollars (in public costs). This disaster, counting the utilities, we’re at a little over $9 million. It’s a situation where we’ve got to start getting some of that money back,” he said.
Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board is waiting for $17.5 million in reimbursements for snapped poles and shredded lines left by the April 27 tornadoes and $1.9 million from tornadoes in February.
“It is a lengthy process,” Chief Finance Officer Greg Eaves said. “It’s definitely a cash-flow shot. You’ve got to disburse it and reimburse it.”
On the other hand, Eaves said, EPB submitted its reimbursement request for the April storms in August after totaling invoices from contractors in 21 states for recovery and repairs.
“Obviously, I want it as quickly as possible, but I understand the headaches they have to go through,” Eaves said. “One entity takes us two months, and if I’m one of a hundred companies asking for reimbursement, I can understand why it takes TEMA so much time.”

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