St. Johns County officials defend use of consultant for disaster recovery

St. Johns County officials Tuesday reassessed the status of their arrangement with disaster recovery consultant Ardurra Group after an update to commissioners during their previous meeting, on Oct. 17, resulted in more questions than answers and prompted subsequent reports in The Record, which they said were misleading.

 

County Administrator Michael Wanchick, while sharing frustration over the lack of funds to have come the county’s direction so far, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s reimbursement process for Hurricane Matthew isn’t over until it’s over. He said FEMA has admitted to the county it’s “overwhelmed.”

He said Ardurra was “unfairly blamed” in The Record considering the inherent complexity of the process, the bottlenecking of requests to state and federal offices given the multitude of disasters to have struck various parts of the country since Matthew, as well as the continuous game of musical chairs going on within leadership at state and federal levels.

“It’s not going to be blunt force that’s going to get this through,” Wanchick said, adding the county is not “wasting” money on its contract with the consultant.

“We will receive what we’re entitled to,” he said.

Wanchick’s comments came at the back end of a discussion broached by Commission Chair Jimmy Johns during his closing comments.

Johns had asked fellow commissioners if they wanted to consider someone else for the consultancy given concerns raised over the past few weeks regarding the slow-going process of recouping of funds for recovery.

He said he was disappointed with responses, particularly from the consultant, to many of the questions he had at the Oct. 17 meeting.

Commissioner Jeb Smith said there were still questions that need answering — the big one being whether the board’s investment in the county’s disaster recovery consultant is a prudent use of tax dollars.

Commissioner Jay Morris said the county’s already halfway downstream and it would do more harm than good to change course now. He said he believed the company has done a good job on the portions of the work it has completed so far.

As Morris explained, the board in January entered into a 5-year, $3.6 million contract with Ardurra Group to handle Matthew, of which only $1.5 million has been expended to date. He said recovery assistance for Matthew and, now, for Hurricane Irma, will be provided under the same original funding.

Commissioner Paul Waldron said there are concerns about the cost of the contract in relation to where the county stands. He said his understanding is that other counties, such as Brevard County, have received obligations from FEMA. He also suggested reaching out to other counties to see what they’re doing differently and who they’ve hired to complete certain tasks.

Waldron said he believed it would be beneficial for the county to continue with Ardurra, albeit “with more scrutiny,” and stressed the importance for commissioners to speak to whoever they need to speak with at state and federal levels to make sure things are going in the right direction.

Commissioner Henry Dean took issue with The Record’s Nov. 1 headline “Consultants $1.4 million, county $0.” He called it “misleading” and “unfortunate” and said it created angst and shock where unnecessary. He said Wanchick all along has maintained the reimbursement process will be a multi-year process.

“To me, we are on track,” he said, adding he’s expecting positive movement soon and that the county will ultimately be reimbursed.

Still, Dean said he had some questions about the original contract with Ardurra, specifically with regard to staff and fees, although he did not elaborate. He said he believed the arrangement will be reviewed and watched carefully from here on out.

Johns said he wanted to see more accountability in any subsequent task orders issued to Ardurra. He also said what was outlined in Ardurra’s proposal and the resulting contract, versus what has actually been provided, is “noticeably different.”

He said he ultimately expects what’s been promised will be provided but that he’s looking for a better idea of what results are expected when. He also asked to see the next task order for Ardurra, for his review, before it is issued.

Joe Giammanco, disaster recovery manager for the county, said the county had learned so much from Matthew that it would be able to take on more of the managerial duties with Irma. He said Ardurra’s reduced role would mainly be to help the county “put the square into the triangle.”

He said due to a modified approach to reimbursements with Irma on the part of the federal government, he’s expecting more transparency throughout the process. Even with Matthew, he said he’s seen some forward movement over the past month or so on at least a couple of fronts.

Johns acknowledged the challenging nature of the reimbursement process, especially given the changeover in leadership at state and federal levels throughout the whole ordeal. However, he also said other counties seem to have found results already.

“I’m just looking for ours,” he said.

At least as of Tuesday’s meeting, Ardurra’s program manager for St. Johns County, Craig P. Taffaro, had been reassigned.

 

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