Augusta’s lack of preparation for February's ice storm forced the city into “piggybacking” two hurricane debris removal contracts, a process frowned on by the federal agency from which it is seeking reimbursement.
The storm left an unprecedented inch of ice between Feb. 11 and 13 that tested preparedness in a city unaccustomed to such disasters. While no lives were lost, city officials scrambled in the days after to secure enough resources to manage the removal of hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of fallen trees and limbs.
The following Monday, the Augusta Commission authorized contracting with Ashbritt Environmental and Leidos Inc. to oversee debris removal and monitoring, an estimated $8.6 million job.
The city did not seek competitive bids for the service, but instead, used a 2010 bid award by Chatham County to AshBritt and a 2010 award by Liberty County to Leidos.
The practice of “piggybacking” on an existing contract was used by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to award Ashbritt a lucrative debris removal contract across many cities affected by Hurricane Sandy. Christie was widely criticized for selecting the firm, which has close ties to the Republican party.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which hopes to reimburse Augusta for up to 85 percent of cleanup costs, includes “piggybacking” in instructions about what governments should never do.
“The use of such a contract may jeopardize FEMA funding because these contracts do not meet requirements for competition established in 44 CFR 13.36,” it states. “If an applicant requests reimbursement for costs it incurred from a piggyback contract, FEMA will determine the reasonable cost for the performance of eligible work.”
The state filed a request last week for a federal disaster declaration that will make Richmond and other counties eligible for reimbursement for the cost of cleanup but hasn’t received its answer yet.
While Augusta officials were scrambling, Columbia County had to make a single call, said Pam Tucker, former EMA director in Augusta who now serves as emergency and operations director in the suburban county.
Columbia has had a pre-positioned debris removal contract with predetermined, competitively bid rates since 2009, she said.
“We always knew that we needed a recovery plan, something really definite about how we would clean up after a disaster,” Tucker said.
Having the contract in place has cost the county nothing, and after FEMA reimbursement, the county can expect to pay only 12.5 percent of cleanup costs because the contract is in place, saving the county up to $700,000, she said.
Aiken County was finalizing a bid award to Greer, S.C.-based Southern Disaster Recovery when the storm hit, said Andy Merriman, the assistant county administrator. The Aiken County Council completed the bid process, and SDR is assisting with debris removal across the 1,073-acre county.
Debris removal is likely the practice most monitored by FEMA because of its propensity for fraud, as incomplete or inappropriate loads make their way to disposal, said Clayton Scott, EMA director for Chatham County.
Scott said he did not think Chatham had had occasion to use its “pre-positioned” contract with Ashbritt, but that “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery” and he saw no issue with Augusta using the contract.
Scott said he would be more concerned if multiple neighboring cities and counties all piggybacked a contract with the same company.
Officials in Columbia, Chatham and even Richmond counties agreed that pre-positioning a debris removal contract in the event of a disaster is a job for the county EMA director.
In Augusta, however, the task of finding a debris removal contractor fell to the Engineering department, which handles roadway maintenance during routine weather events.
Engineering Director Abie Ladson said whoever the city chose, the outcome would be the same and that most funds will be reimbursed.
“We had to act pretty quick on it,” Ladson said.
Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell said several firms had approached the city during the storm and “we got the ones we were most comfortable with.”
Breathing a huge sigh of relief as Ashbritt’s efforts got under way last week, Cassell said having an agreement in place would have made things easier.
“That’s the advantage to having a pre-positioned contract. You don’t have to deal with some of the headaches,” he said.
Fire Chief Chris James said he was named interim EMA director at some point after a pervious interim stepped down. James’ predecessor, Fire Chief Howard Willis, similarly served as EMA director. The position, required under state law, is a mayoral appointment.
“We had on-call contractors that handled the stuff, but it was just the magnitude of the amount,” James said.
He said setting up a debris removal contract before a disaster is “typically an EMA function.”
“I think after this we’ll do a lot of things differently.”
Augusta Commission member Joe Jackson, who placed a discussion of debris removal prices on Tuesday’s commission meeting agenda, said pre-positioning a debris-removal contract “falls under emergency management.”
He faulted James for other storm-related issues, including firefighters and equipment that weren’t deployed to assist.
“Several EMA directors have reached out to Chris to help him and he refuses,” Jackson said.