Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 7, 2020
This is not the first article the Fernandina Observer has posted about the ongoing issues between FEMA and the City of Fernandina Beach. And it probably won’t be the last. There are many different stories circulating in the community speculating about the origins of the discrepancy between what the City believes FEMA needs to reimburse for Hurricane Matthew damage to the City Marina in 2016 and what FEMA believes it owes to the City.
In response to a question posed by Commissioner Mike Lednovich during discussion at the September 1, 2020 Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC), City Manager Dale Martin provided a recap of events, decisions and timing, all of which caused the City Commission to approve moving ahead with replacement of the attenuator docks when it did.
This article lays out the project, primarily as described by Martin at the September 1 meeting. It is important for our readers to understand that the FEMA portion of the marina debt is $6.5M, less than half the marina’s total debt of more than $15M.
Following Hurricane Matthew, the City engaged ATM, its marina consultant, to perform a damage assessment in the City Marina. In February 2017, ATM’ reported that all the amenities and the attenuator were damaged beyond repair and recommended replacement. In March 2017, FEMA sent a subcontractor to conduct its own damage assessment. This contractor (FEMA 1) apparently requested a repair estimate from Bellingham Marina. The document he received was never presented to the city; therefore, the city never presented it to FEMA subsequently.
The threshhold for agreeing to fund replacement as opposed to repair is 50 percent. All parties agreed that more than 50 percent of the structures were damaged. Therefore, the discussion concentrated on replacement, not repair costs.
Even in considering the repair estimate that he had requested, FEMA 1 official recommended replacement, not repair. His estimate was approximately $6.5M for north and south attenuators. He prepared the form, but another, separate FEMA official — FEMA 2 — signed off on the form. In October 2017, FEMA signed the document indicating that the marina attenuator replacement project qualified for 75 percent reimbursement.
The FEMA sign-off meant that the City is eligible for reimbursement of 75 percent of the cost of replacement, regardless of the final cost. FEMA does not provide grants; it operates on a reimbursement basis, meaning that the City first must pay to make the repairs before asking FEMA to cover the final 75 percent of total cost.
Because of permitting issues with the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) over replacing the southern attenuator close to the unused Federal Channel, FEMA and ACE concurred that the project should be broken into two parts: the first for the southern attenuator and the second for the northern attenuator.
FEMA then sent another contractor — FEMA 3 — who estimated the cost for the replacement of the southern attenuator, to be done first, $6.3M.
With that, the report and approval of the fourth professional expert (one hired by the City and 3 by FEMA), the City received its permits from ACE and proceeded with the replacement construction.
Martin said that if the City had waited until FEMA had actually obligated the funds for the project it had approved, “We would just now be opening bids to begin the work.”
Problems arose when FEMA went to obligate the funds for reimbursement. Ignoring the recommendation and approvals provided earlier in the process, FEMA declined to provide the 75 percent reimbursement. Instead of repaying the city approximately $6M, they offered $1.88M. With support and encouragement from many sources, including Florida Representative John Rutherford, the City on August 28, 2020, filed its first appeal of the FEMA decision.
This appeal will be heard by the FEMA officials in Tallahassee who declined to reimburse the 75 percent of City costs in May. Should this appeal not be successful, the City will file a second appeal with the FEMA regional office in Atlanta, GA.
On another, lighter note, some local residents were abuzz this past week when it was announced that FEMA had reduced a reimbursement proposed for the City’s Matthew related expenses by four (4) cents. Some people erroneously believed that this was FEMA’s response to the City’s appeal filed on August 28.
Yes, it is true that FEMA adjusted its reimbursement to the City of Fernandina Beach by 4 cents.
No, it is NOT true, that the adjustment is a result of the City’s appeal for reconsideration of the reimbursement amount for replacement of the southern attenuator in the City Marina.
City Manager Dale Martin explained that there were actually three City requests for FEMA reimbursement, individually numbered and filed: 1) the southern attenuator, 2) the northern attenuator, and 3) staff costs for other Matthew related clean up activities. FEMA decided to reduce the City’s request for regular and overtime staff salaries involved in the clean up (the third request) from $14,063.89 to $14,063.85.