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ZURIK: FEMA may not reimburse Kenner for $2M in post-Ida cleanup

Updated: Mar. 31, 2022 at 10:05 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Decisions on how to oversee the clean-up of trash, downed trees, and debris in the wake of Hurricane Ida could end up costing taxpayers in the city of Kenner millions of dollars.

City leaders apparently failed to follow Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) rules that required them to hire monitors to track the amount of trash and debris collected after the storm last year, according to a FOX 8 investigation.

That decision by Mayor Ben Zahn’s administration could jeopardize FEMA reimbursing the city more than $2.5 million.

Tulane law professor Joel Friedman calls the decision “economically insane.”

FEMA reimburses local governments for many extra expenses after natural disasters. However, there are requirements that municipalities must follow to get reimbursed. In the case of trash and debris removal, FEMA says municipalities must hire a debris monitor to “ensure that quantities and work claimed are accurate and eligible.”

Kenner had three companies help remove trash and debris following the storm: Ceres Environmental Services, IV Waste, and Risk Tree Service.

The city also hired DebrisTech to act as a debris monitor for Ceres, however, it doesn’t appear that IV Waste and Risk Tree service had monitors. Emails obtained by FOX 8 show the city’s former deputy chief administrative officer Chad Pitfield was asked if DebrisTech would also monitor IV Waste and Risk Tree Service, and he responded that the company would only monitor the work done by Ceres.

In a statement, the city of Kenner told FOX 8 it relied on members of its Municipal Emergency Response Team (MERT) to monitor both IV Waste and Risk Tree. The city says it has used the practice in the past and none were deemed ineligible by FEMA.

It sent FOX 8 the names of 25 employees who allegedly monitored the work. FOX 8 reached four of those employees by phone. Each said they didn’t do any debris monitoring, and one person said no one in the department worked as a debris monitor.

FOX 8 also gathered city timesheet records for all 25 employees, in which they detailed their daily duties following Ida. In nearly 1,000 pages of documents, not one employee listed “debris monitoring” as a job duty on any day.

FEMA also requires specific backup documentation from debris monitors, including documents showing debris quantities by types, quantities reduced, reduction methods, and pickup and disposal locations. When FOX 8 asked Kenner for documentation related to the debris monitoring of IV Waste and Risk Tree, Kenner city officials said none existed.

“I bet there isn’t a municipality in the state of Louisiana, that doesn’t comply with the FEMA guidelines requiring monitoring and monitoring reports. Because they know if they don’t do this, they won’t get paid back,” said Tulane law professor Joel Friedman. “Who would pay … millions of dollars, knowing you’re not going to get paid back? And therefore, the city of Kenner, which means the people who live in Kenner and pay taxes, they’re paying all of these fees, and they’re not getting reimbursed. It’s shocking. It’s disgraceful. There can’t be any realistic, lawful explanation for why they intentionally do not monitor certain disposal companies when they dump.”

The lack of oversight could cost Kenner residents a significant amount of money. Prior investigations by FOX 8 also found Kenner paid IV Waste and Risk Tree Service significantly more than neighboring areas paid contractors for similar work.

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Much of those expenses for Kenner came from debris being brought to what the city calls the Kenner Yard. A city spokesperson said the Yard is intended for wood waste and debris collected by city crews and tree contractors. But invoices show the debris from the Yard was not brought to where it should have been.

Tree and wood waste should be brought to the Construction and Demolition (C&D) landfill but was instead brought to the same landfill where Kenner dumps residential trash.

The C&D landfill bills by the cubic yard, measuring the size of each container being dumped. But the residential landfill measures waste in tons.

Since C&D is made up of trees and debris, which are typically very heavy, billing Kenner by the ton instead of by the cubic yard likely cost the city more.

“If they had a monitor there like they do for Ceres, the monitor would say, ‘I’m sorry, this is C&D. Go back over there, where you get paid by the volume. Don’t come here for garbage where you get paid by the tonnage.’ But they don’t,” said Friedman.

Pitfield, the former Deputy CAO, oversaw the debris cleanup work.

Kenner officials fired him in February after a series of FOX 8 investigations raised questions about the disaster pay he collected after Ida, and whether he was double-dipping while also working as a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy. An internal audit by Kenner also found he may have falsified documents to cover up double-billing.

Friedman believes Pitman’s involvement in the debris cleanup process sheds light on the lack of oversight.

“I believe this is an intentional effort to avoid monitoring waste that comes in from certain carriers with whom Chad Pitfield or others in city government have a connection,” said Friedman.

Prior FOX 8 reports revealed Pitfield had an IV Waste email address and set up the company’s social media account while approving IV Waste invoices for the city of Kenner.

Friedman says Pitfield and Kenner’s actions following the storm make no sense. That’s because FEMA also reimburses what municipalities pay to hire debris monitors. In fact, 100% of debris monitoring costs are reimbursable. That means hiring DebrisTech to monitor IV Waste and Risk Tree, as well as Ceres, would have cost the city nothing. Instead, Kenner decided not to have DebrisTech monitor IV Waste and Risk tree.

“FEMA would even reimburse the cost, but even if they didn’t, they are jeopardizing reimbursement for millions of dollars,” said Friedman. “Why would you do this? It’s economically insane.”

Both Risk Tree Service and IV Waste issued statements to FOX 8 regarding their role in debris pickup.

Risk Tree said, “All of the work that Risk Tree Service was hired to do, and did do, was performed pursuant to the direction of the City of Kenner and its officials. Risk Tree Service delivered excellent service to the citizens of Kenner.”

IV Waste said it played no role in ensuring the use of a debris monitor and added, “While so many people were displaced and worried about their future, others were on the streets working and trying to clean the city. IV hauled several thousands of tons generated by the storm and is proud of the work it did, all under very trying conditions.”

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