HACKSENSACK -Two Ocean County towns that may have to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in Superstorm Sandy relief, following federal audits of their debris-removal programs, blamed conflicting advice from federal contractors and unresponsive construction companies for some of their disputed claims.
On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General released an audit of a $4.45 million debris-removal project in Little Egg Harbor, flagging more than $689,000 of the claims as unsupported or ineligible for federal reimbursement.
This is the second audit of a municipality's Sandy spending made public: an audit of Beach Haven, released Tuesday, called on the borough to repay $344,000 in unsupported claims, on top of returning more than $650,000 in unused money and surrendering its claim to $3 million more.
The charges of unsupported and ineligible claims have particularly rankled local officials.
Little Egg Harbor officials say many citations in their audit came from a rotating collection of Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors, while Beach Haven has struggled to get adequate personnel records from two debris-removal contractors.
"We did what the people at FEMA who were sent to us told us to do, and then the auditors came and told us something else," said Mike Fromosky, assistant business administrator for Little Egg Harbor.
Little Egg Harbor was awarded $4.46 million for debris removal, including a $1.67 million advance received in December 2012.
Unlike Beach Haven, which shared debris-removal services with Ocean County, Little Egg Harbor worked on its own, with FEMA advice, to remove 33,429 tons of debris, a move the auditors praised.
Still, auditors found fault with hours and equipment billed for township employees in the weeks after the storm.
Little Egg Harbor claimed $296,769 for 8,500 regular and overtime hours for its Public Works Department in the month of November 2012 but did not provide documents, like activity and work logs, auditors said.
The township also claimed $22,293 in "duplicate" costs, counting the same 627 working hours for 11 employees in two separate projects. More than $9,000 was claimed for 239 hours of work on Thanksgiving Day, although no public works personnel worked that day.
An additional $348,400 in equipment charges also was considered unsupported or ineligible because they were not backed up by activity logs and included hours worked on Thanksgiving Day.
The town claimed as project expenditures a $1,021 computer, $330 for trash container registration decals, and $1,514 for a water pump/fuel injector, none of which were eligible for a reimbursement, according to the report.
Little Egg Harbor has not disputed these findings: In a December 2013 letter to the auditors, cited in the report, town officials pledged to correct the mistakes in the claims.
But the township blamed FEMA for the lack of documents, citing "inaccurate or incomplete guidance from the many FEMA project specialists assigned to assist the township."
The township also denounced as "arbitrary and capricious" a recycling program that FEMA extended to New York but not New Jersey, which means the town is losing out on $10,000 in reimbursements.
"Every three months another group would come in," Fromosky said.
Beach Haven Manager Richard Crane said: "I can't tell you how many FEMA people we had here."
"The initial wave" of FEMA contractors, he said, "they gave us carte blanche to do this, that, the next thing. We were taking it on faith."
Alberto Pillot, a spokesman for FEMA, said the agency's early estimates were intended to get money to towns quickly. "It is hard to believe that any person from FEMA ever advised them that they have carte blanche."
In Beach Haven, miscommunications with FEMA were compounded by problems with contractors, officials there said.
In a December response to the federal auditors, Crane wrote that two local contractors - not identified by name in the report - failed to keep adequate records of their equipment and manpower.
One of these companies, Crane said, was Seminole Construction, which was responsible for $166,714 in unsupported charges in the audit.
A message left at Seminole's Beach Haven offices seeking comment was not returned Wednesday.
The other company, Eco Materials, and specifically one of its subcontractors, Haas Environmental, were responsible for $58,305 worth of work that was insufficiently documented, Crane said.
An official at Haas Environmental declined to comment, but the owner of Eco Materials said he had provided the town with "all the information they asked for."
©2014 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)