FEMA says it supports earthquake repair funds for Atascadero

The Printery building on Olmeda Avenue in Atascadero.
The Printery building on Olmeda Avenue in Atascadero. Tribune file photo

Federal disaster aid representatives have upheld their decision to give Atascadero repair funds for damage caused during the San Simeon Earthquake, according to a memo from the federal government released Dec. 12.

In March, federal auditors with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General said Atascadero didn't properly use or account for repair expenses totaling roughly $8 million after the 2003 quake.

The move put the cash-strapped city at risk for possibly having to pay back some or all of the money.

The audit reviewed approximately $12.9 million in expenses.

The memo lists several reasons the agency’s disaster funding to the city was justified on quake repair projects from December 2003 to February 2012, such as temporarily relocating the city hall offices, replacing the city’s damaged Printery Building with a community center, and fixing the city’s historic Administration Building.

On Dec. 12, the city released the Dec. 3 rebuttal memo to the inspector general and from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s western division. The higher standing regional division looked into the audit allegations against its Pasadena office, which made the city’s initial funding approvals after the quake, City Manager Wade McKinney said.

The rebuttal memo says the regional division supports the city’s funding, except for a $1,312 invoice mistake for work on the Printery Building. The city agrees with that finding as well and says it has been fixed.

“Normally this is the end of the process, they tell us,” McKinney told The Tribune. The matter could continue with additional checks and questions, but city leaders say they are confident that this is a win for the city.

The inspector general was not available for comment, so it’s unclear where its allegations stand. In the end, FEMA makes the final determinations, so auditors don’t have to respond, though they are able to, McKinney said.

But Atascadero may not be fully in the clear because the memo isn’t a final determination or “closeout” on the inspector general’s report, according to a city news release.

A final review would come after the Administration Building repairs are complete next year.

The inspector general’s audit, which at the time investigators told city officials was routine, started in August 2010 and concluded with a report in March.

FEMA delayed its response and was most recently slated to issue one in October.

Mike Brennler, a former Atascadero city councilman who served as mayor in 2008, expressed concerns he had with the city’s quake relief funding with FEMA and the Inspector General’­s Office in 2009.

“I was involved in speaking to OIG, absolutely,” he said.

Brennler has long voiced concerns that the city misrepresented the amount of city-sponsored activities at the Printery Building before it was damaged in the 2003 earthquake in order to obtain FEMA money to fund construction of the community center.

“I did some research, and obviously there were some things done that I think were very unethical. Unethical, at best; possibly criminal, at worst,” Brennler said.

No determinations on such allegations were ever publicly made, nor have authorities confirmed that the Printery Building/community center issue was being investigated.

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