CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia has been relieved from longstanding sanctions over its inadequate safeguards for federal grant dollars, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency might still make the state pay back almost $1 million over documentation issues.

West Virginia’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is appealing the finding.

“Ultimately if the cost is disallowed, WV DHSEM would have to make up the shortfall in funding,” Dan Armstrong, general counsel for the state agency, stated in response to MetroNews questions.

FEMA has requested more information from West Virginia to render a decision on the appeal. State officials have until Oct. 5 to provide the additional information.

The $901,411 in question is a dark cloud remaining after FEMA lifted other sanctions last week.

West Virginia had received greater scrutiny for several years because of concerns about whether the state provided adequate oversight as grants were passed from the federal government to subrecipients such as local governments.

West Virginia was believed to be the only state, aside from Puerto Rico, under such mandatory manual reimbursement restrictions.

Jimmy Gianato

FEMA cited concerns dating back to 2011 and sent written notification to then-Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato in 2015.

The agency pushed West Virginia to improve its oversight and had a series of on-site audits. Last week, state leaders received a letter stating the mandatory manual reimbursement would be lifted.

But FEMA also reviewed an annual Single Audit that questioned whether many of the practices at the state agency are adequate.

So on July 31, FEMA reported back on several of the findings.

The most significant finding was that West Virginia did not obtain required documentation for some emergency management performance grants.

The recipients were supposed to maintain emergency operations plans, which would set guidelines to properly manage a disaster.

But there wasn’t evidence that such plans were available when federal auditors asked.

West Virginia had established that requirement itself, so the allegation is that the state didn’t enforce its own procedures.

“Of the samples pulled by the FEMA EMPG Program Manager during the July 2019 site visit, many of them did not have an updated EOP, but the sub still received the EMPG funding,” FEMA wrote.

The federal agency continued, “The finding is sustained and the questioned costs are deemed disallowed.”

On August 20, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management wrote back to appeal the finding.

Among the state’s contentions is that the grant money trickled to economically-challenged counties.

The subrecipients were Wood, Webster, Tyler, Tucker, Raleigh, Pendleton, Ohio, Mingo, Lincoln, Hancock, Greenbrier, Doddridge, Cabell, Brooke and Barbour counties.

“Some of these counties are among the poorest in the state with very small populations,” DHSEM’s Armstrong stated in the appeal letter.

“For a county like Webster, with a budget of $2.3 million for FY 2020, every dollar must be fully utilized. Even small disallowed amounts cause undue hardship on these small, rural communities.”

State officials also contended they hadn’t yet had time to improve all aspects of oversight.

Michael Todorovich

Former director Gianato was reassigned last year and then retired this spring. Mike Todorovich moved into the role and began to reshape the agency.

“While minimal compliance is still compliance, DHSEM strives to exceed the minimum requirements in everything we do. Under past leadership that wasn’t always the case,” Armstrong wrote for the agency’s appeal.

“However, DHSEM is now under new leadership that has made accountability, transparency and fiscal responsibility a priority.”

Armstrong wrote that until the Single Audit came out in 2018, the state agency was unaware of federal concerns about the emergency operations plans.

“Since DHSEM never had a meaningful opportunity to address FEMA’s concerns during the relevant time period, these costs should not be disallowed,” Armstrong wrote.