Vero Beach’s handling of hurricane expenses being reviewed

VERO BEACH — Vero Beach City Council members were notified Tuesday that the city will be the subject of an audit by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Auditors will be looking at funds spent by city leaders on Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004. Councilman Tom White was Mayor at the time, and numerous decisions made regarding preparations and cleanup were a matter of contentious public debate.

Mayor Kevin Sawnick was notified via a letter announcing that auditors would be at City Hall at 10 a.m. Aug. 11 for a meeting and that field work would commence immediately following that meeting.

“The purpose of the audit is to determine whether the City has accounted for and expended FEMA funds according to federal regulations and FEMA guidelines,” the letter states.

Senior Auditor Vilmarie Serrano, who penned the letter to Mayor Sawnick, said it is the normal function of the Office of Inspector General to perform audits of FEMA funds.

“We have a lot of reasons to include a city in our audit plan,” Serrano said, stopping short of giving those reasons.

When pressed for details, Serrano referred to her supervisor, Filipe Puvillones, who could not be reached for comment.

Councilman Brian Heady, a vocal critic of the city’s handling of the hurricanes, said he intends to write a detailed letter to the auditors on City Council letterhead to make sure they don’t miss possible infractions that he finds especially egregious or irresponsible.

Heady said he will request that his letter be given to auditors along with the documents they’ve requested from the city.

Among the items Serrano asked the city have ready for her on Aug. 11 are accounting ledgers, payroll records, time and attendance reports, invoices, contracts, purchase orders, audited financial statements and purchasing procedures.

It does not appear that the timing of the Vero Beach audit is part of a countywide review of local agencies by the Department of Homeland Security.

Sebastian City Manager Al Minner said he was fairly certain that the City of Sebastian had already passed a routine, cursory audit by FEMA.Indian River County Budget Director Jason Brown, upon viewing the letter received by the City of Vero Beach, said the notice is different than the routine correspondence the county has had with FEMA over reimbursements and the closing out of grants. “Indian River County has not received a notification like this as far as I’m aware,” Brown said. “We are still working with FEMA representatives to close out the last few project worksheets that we have.  However, we have not been subject to an audit yet.”

Fellsmere Finance Director Larry Napier confirmed that Fellsmere is not part of the probe, but said that the city’s grants with FEMA are not yet closed out.

“It’s a random sampling” he said of how governments can be selected for audits – 5 to 10 percent are chosen at random.

Napier, who has decades of experience in dealing with not only FEMA but other federal agencies, said the customary procedure is for an initial audit to be conducted by FEMA.

Then if any red flags turn up, a more in-depth audit may be warranted by the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA is now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s not common,” Napier said of a second round of auditing, but it does happen.

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