FEMA: Augusta broke federal regulations in ice storm cleanup contracts

Sleet, ice and fallen trees are seen on Lombardy Court after a winter storm hit Augusta in February. FEMA officials say Augusta broke numerous federal regulations in procuring two cleanup contracts to clean up debris after the ice storm, but say the city will likely will be reimbursed by the agency for most cleanup costs incurred.

Editor's Note: A photo in the print edition of The Augusta Chronicle illustrating  the city's February cleanup from an ice storm showed workers clearing tree limbs. Unlimited Residential was not one of the companies working under a city contract that, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, broke federal regulations in procuring two contracts for the cleanup. The photo should not have been used with this story. 


Augusta broke numerous federal regulations in procuring two contracts for cleanup from a winter ice storm, but likely will be reimbursed by FEMA for most of cleanup costs, according to correspondence from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The city’s sole-source, noncompetitive bid awards to Ashbritt Environmental and Leidos Inc. for cleanup starting Feb. 25, two weeks after the storm dumped a rare inch of ice on the area, did not comply with FEMA regulations requiring a competitive procurement, a June 13 letter from FEMA coordinating officer Michel Moore said.

The letter also states the city did not meet requirements for the attempted inclusion of women, minorities and local firms, justify its use of a “time and materials” contract for the work or separate negotiations for profit from price.

The city has paid more than $17 million in cleanup costs so far, including more than $12.5 million to Ashbritt and $1.8 million to Leidos, with the expectation FEMA will reimburse 85 percent of the funds for the first 30 days and 75 percent to Day 90. Project worksheets are not complete and no reimbursement has taken place, according to city Finance Director Donna Williams.

Unprepared as Columbia County was with a “prepositioned” contract for disaster debris removal, Richmond County had to “piggyback,” a process discouraged by FEMA, on two coastal Georgia counties’ contracts for hurricane cleanup with Ashbritt and Leidos when the storm hit.

Though Moore’s letter cites violations throughout the process, he said emergency conditions justify the city’s use of noncompetitive bid awards, up to the point the emergency no longer existed.

“The circumstances justified a noncompetitive procurement for the time period of Feb. 25 until April 7, 2014, which was the beginning of the Masters Golf Tournament,” Moore said.

After out-of-town cleanup crews vacated motel rooms to make way for Masters Tournament guests, emergency conditions no longer existed and the city should have turned to competitively bid contracts for the remainder of the work, however.

“The circumstances did not warrant a noncompetitive procurement beyond April 7, 2014, which is when the applicant could have had a competitively procured contract in place that met all the requirements of 44 C.F.R. 13.36(b)(i),” said Moore.

Fortunately for Augusta, city officials said work done by the firms after April 7 represents less than 5 percent of the total cleanup bill.

“Everything was essentially complete on the fourth, the Friday before Masters,” said Steve Cassell, the interim deputy administrator.

Cassell said the remaining work consisted primarily of grinding and removal of woody debris from staging areas and “a couple hot spots here and there” that together cost Augusta no more than a half-million dollars.

A final determination on Augusta’s eligibility for reimbursement has not been made, but Moore said based on the noncompliance, FEMA will reimburse Augusta for the work done after April 7 not based on what the city paid, but on “what FEMA concludes as reasonable costs for the services performed, which may or may not align to the costs actually incurred by the applicant.”

Augusta commissioner Marion Williams said he’d been alarmed by the strong language in the letter, but was relieved to hear the city likely will “get the majority of it.”

Williams said he’d pressed during the immediate storm aftermath to conduct an emergency procurement that involved local vendors, but “they said we didn’t have enough time.”

The rare storm was a learning experience, and city officials are developing a request for proposals from firms to have prepositioned contracts in place the next time a disaster creates significant debris, according to Cassell and Augusta Fire Chief Chris James.

As a fire chief since 2012 who has doubled as emergency management agency director, a position required by Georgia law, James said the EMA continues to take steps to sufficiently prepare for disasters. He deflected criticism that Augusta needs a full-time EMA director, a mayoral appointment, to ensure regulations are followed and precautions are taken.

“We have a full-time person to prepare and assure we are prepared for disasters,” who is Mie Lucas, the disaster preparedness coordinator, James said. A former Red Cross disaster staffer in Charleston, S.C., Lucas was hired in January 2013 at a salary of $57,859.

The office now has James, an administrative assistant, an EMA specialist and a deputy fire chief to assist with preparations and improvements since the tenure of former Fire Chief Howard Willis, who doubled as EMA director with a staff of one.

“This is just an event that took place early in our tenures,” James said. “We have made great strides in the past couple of years.”

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