Apparent accounting error forces Sussex to repay disaster aid

By Michael Campbell News Editor

As many residents in this region are reminded of Hurricane Matthew when they see splintered trees and clean-up still going on, the state reminded Sussex leaders of a different storm and its impacts when requesting a refund for disaster funding.

In their October meeting, supervisors were informed previously distributed funds for a Donated Resources project following 2011’s Hurricane Irene resulted in an overpayment of funds.

The late-August 2011 storm impacted much of the Caribbean and East Coast of the United States, leaving 56 people dead in its wake and is considered the seventh-costliest hurricane in American history, causing over $16 billion in damage.

In the days after the storm, Sussex was among a slew of cities and counties that were designated for federal disaster assistance to help local governments along with select private non-profit facilities recover from the devastating hurricane.

According to the Federal Department of Emergency Management, following Irene, over $57 million in public assistance grants were provided, along with $44 million in emergency work and $10 million in permanent work dollars were disseminated to those affected by the storm.

As part of the disaster declaration, documents show Sussex received funding for a “
Donated Resources” project described as an “emergency protective measures” project, with the county receiving $3,330.50, with a federal obligation of $2,497.88, or 75 percent.

But, in a letter to Sussex County five years after the storm, the commonwealth’s Department of Emergency Management says the county was overpaid by nearly $750 because the state “does not participate in the non-Federal share for Donated Resources projects.”

The state blames an accounting error for why the funds were still disbursed in error after the county’s recovery projects came in less than the Federal share of the Donated Resources, but was not automatically adjusted, leaving Sussex on the hook for $732.71, due 30 days after the county received the letter on Oct. 11.

During their meeting last month, Chairman Keith Blowe expressed his concern about paying the funds back so soon, given that it was a error not of the county’s doing.

“This item was a mistake on the state’s bookkeeping and they say they want their money in 30 days,” he remarked, suggesting that the county communicate with the state and offer full payment at the end of the fiscal year in June 2017.

Blowe’s fellow supervisors disagreed, including Henry District supervisor Rufus Tyler and Waverly District supervisor A.G. Futrell.

“If they say we owe it and we don’t pay it back by the deadline, they will probably assess penalties,” explained Tyler. “In light of trying to save money, we should go ahead and pay it back.”

Before the vote on the matter, Vice-Chairman Susan Seward questioned County Administrator Deborah Davis about if the refund could come out of the Public Safety budget and prevent the county from dipping further into contingency funds, but Davis reported that public safety coordinator Eddie Vick said there wasn’t any funds there to pull from.

The motion to pay the state back the funds passed by a 5-1 vote, with Courthouse District supervisor Eric Fly voting against the measure.

Even though the motion passed, Blowe suggested the county still speak with the state in regard to the timetable of repayment of the over-expenditure of funds.

“I think it would be appropriate to call them and explain that it took them so long to do this, as opposed to doing it in 30 days, could we have a little more time because it’s the principle of the thing,” he said.

Seward also suggested Treasurer Onnie Woodruff and county administration to “dive a little deeper” into the Public Safety budget since “that is where the money lived.”

Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications

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