Mayor of flood-struck town says W.Va. oversight is inadequate

CLENDENIN, W.Va. — The mayor of flood-ravaged Clendenin has been warning for months that West Virginia government isn’t doing enough to monitor millions of dollars in grant money from the federal government.

“There is potential for this state having to pay back millions of dollars,” Mayor Shana Clendenin said this week in her office.

“It’s about being in compliance with the federal regulations. The state is going to be on the hook. I said that plainly to the best of my ability to the entire staff of Governor Justice’s Office.”

How West Virginia complies with grant requirements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been in the spotlight because of a legislative report that was released this month.

West Virginia has been under heightened oversight from the Federal Emergency Management Agency since late 2015. It’s the only state, aside from Puerto Rico, operating under increased scrutiny.

“The federal action is the result of several years of DHSEM’s inability to comply with grant requirements and failure to remedy identified issues,” wrote the state’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division.

FEMA has established a series of steps for West Virginia to reach compliance. The state is supposed to demonstrate better oversight of federal grant sub-recipients, such as local governments.

“We felt the documentation collection and review process was inadequate and it was a material weakness that created risk and the potential for de-obligations in the future,” FEMA Region III administrator MaryAnn Tierney said in a telephone interview last week.

“They were not monitoring applicants effectively. We felt that was a risk not worth taking. To protect West Virginia and the applicants, we imposed this process to create more rigor in the system.”

From the local level, Mayor Clendenin has those same concerns.

She’s surprised state officials have acted caught off guard by the revelation of the 2015 letter and its related sanctions.

“They knew there was a problem,” Clendenin said. “I just don’t understand the disregard.”

She wrote a letter last spring to Governor Justice saying that, even after several high-level meetings to point out problems with oversight, she believed the trouble hadn’t yet been addressed.

“It blows my mind that nobody knew,” Clendenin said. “It’s in writing that I told them.”

West Virginia’s legislative flood oversight committee has set a meeting for 10 a.m. to discuss concerns about how West Virginia is using federal flood-relief dollars.

State leaders have described recent changes meant to address grant oversight issues.

Jimmy Gianato, the longtime director of emergency management, has been moved aside to be an adviser. In his place is new director Michael Todorovich.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management has been hiring more employees with financial expertise. The agency is also meeting regularly with FEMA representatives.

“We’ll establish checks and balances where we can not get like this again,” Todorovich said this week.

The millions of dollars that flow from FEMA through the state and to local governments are a blessing. But they’re also a complication. Towns and school systems are likely stressed and lack expertise.

“The state should be the oversight of all these municipalities to ensure there is no clawback at the end,” Clendenin said.

“The state should be verifying that all FEMA protocols are followed to prevent de-obligation in the future.”

Clendenin was living in an apartment when she escaped the 2016 flood with just her wedding ring and six Christmas ornaments. She spent 23 days living at the local fire department.

Since then, she’s been getting back on her feet. She started a new job. She and her husband are about to buy their own home. Last year, she was elected mayor of the recovering town that shares her name.

Clendenin spent several years as a paralegal in law offices, dealing with documents. When she became mayor and started taking a closer look at the town’s FEMA paperwork, she grew concerned.

“I know what happens when you put your name on federal documents that are incorrect,” she said.

She concluded that worksheets for Clendenin’s Town Hall and Clendenin Community Center were written incorrectly. She resisted signing off on closing out those projects.

Clendenin has now hired a professional consultant to help make sure the town’s documentation is correct and that the work being completed is eligible.

With the millions of federal dollars that have flowed from FEMA through West Virginia since the 2016 flood, Clendenin worries about what would happen if any of that is ordered to be repaid.

As the applicant, the state would be on the hook. But would any repercussions trickle to towns like Clendenin?

“The Town of Clendenin is barely back on its feet,” she said. “There’s no way we could pay back to FEMA funds that have come into this town.”

Letter to Governor Re DHS (Text)

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