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North Hempstead may not have to return $10M in Sandy funds

Downed trees and utility poles block Horton Highway

Downed trees and utility poles block Horton Highway in Mineola on Oct. 29, 2012 Credit: Howard Schnapp

North Hempstead Town may not have to relinquish nearly $10 million in superstorm Sandy recovery funds that were questioned by federal audits.

An audit conducted in September by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security analyzed $36.6 million in recovery funds and ultimately concluded that $9.9 million should be reclaimed.

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended that the Office of the Inspector General not mandate the return of funds.

A final determination from the Office of the Inspector General is expected by mid-April, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Arlen Morales.

FEMA’s decision not to mandate the return of the funds came after a push by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer applauded the agency for a decision he said was in the community’s best interest.

“The town of North Hempstead worked in good faith, around the clock, to recover quickly after superstorm Sandy,” Schumer said Wednesday in a statement. “Had FEMA approved the Inspector General’s recommendations, local taxpayers would have been on the hook for millions and millions of dollars.”

The federal audit scrutinized duplicate costs along with documentation and contracts for debris removal. Over the past few months, FEMA has been working with the town to substantiate documentation for expenses, said the agency’s spokesman, Don Caetano.

Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said in a statement Wednesday that the joint effort by Schumer’s office, the town and other federal representatives helped show that the town “followed the necessary procedures, complied with contract rules, and served as careful custodians of federal disaster relief funds.”

The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, which supervises federal public assistance grant money awards to localities, disputed the Inspector General’s findings, according to an August 2016 letter included in the audit report.

A spokeswoman for the state Division of Homeland Security said the agency was pleased no federal funds would have to be returned by the town.

“We will continue to work closely with FEMA and local governments on Long Island that were impacted by superstorm Sandy in order to ensure compliance with program guidelines and obtain their fair share of disaster relief,” the spokeswoman, Kristin Devoe, added.

There are about a dozen federal audits of FEMA funds being conducted in the areas affected by superstorm Sandy, a list that includes the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, according to the Homeland Security website.

FEMA is currently reviewing the September federal audit of $17 million spent by the Long Beach School District to remediate schools and facilities. The Inspector General’s office concluded that since the school district failed to comply with federal procurement standards, it should disallow nearly $670,000 in ineligible contract costs. FEMA expects to reach a decision by the end of the month, Caetano said.

Michael Devito, the district’s chief operating officer, said there had been a lot of “back and forth” and that he remained optimistic about FEMA’s decision.

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