FEMA grant latest feud to ignite board tensions
by Rick Langenberg:
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark found herself playing an awkward role last week as part-diplomat and peacemaker in confronting the volatile political affairs of Green Mountain Falls.
At issue was a pending grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help pay for a $14,000 loan the town received from the El Paso County government to cover additional expenses it incurred during the Waldo Canyon fire. In a previous meeting, Mayor Lorrie Worthey encountered much criticism from several trustee board members for the way the grant process was handled, with allegations of missing paper work and “going behind the backs” of the board. Also, several board members were concerned about owing the county money that it may not be able to pay back.
Clark addressed the board on April 16 and described the grant situation as a huge misunderstanding, and even compiled a two-page chronology of events to clarify the issue. She refused to point any fingers and described the fire as an unprecedented disaster. Moreover, she indicated the Waldo blaze resulted in complex federal regulations and pressing deadlines that had to be met if the county and local towns wanted to receive needed reimbursement. “Our lives changed significantly,” said Clark, when referring to the Waldo Canyon fire of last summer, which led to the evacuation of GMF and Ute Pass residents for nearly 10 days. “None of us have ever dealt with a disaster like this,” added Clark.
As for the timeline of grant submittals, she conceded that a communications breakdown occurred, with the county being forced to submit an application that didn’t include Green Mountain Falls. Originally, El Paso wanted to include GMF in its grant pursuit, explained Clark. But instead, the county lent GMF assistance money, with the understanding that GMF would repay El Paso when it received funds from FEMA during a separate submittal. But unfortunately, technical problems developed in the filing of GMF’s application to FEMA, including the lack of a mayor’s signature. Also, FEMA officials got confused and thought the local fire department, which sought assistance, was part of the town government. “It was a comedy of errors that isn’t funny at this point,” said Clark. The commissioner explained that the county had to proceed without including GMF in its application due to stringent deadlines. Otherwise, she said El Paso County could lose millions of dollars.
Clark’s explanation, though, didn’t meet the satisfaction of Trustee Mac Pitrone. And once again, tensions ignited between Pitrone and Worthey, who have clashed on a variety of issues in the last six months. “There was no reason for the county to get involved in our emergencies,” blasted Pitrone. “I wasn’t consulted,” added the trustee, who said he thought the additional Waldo Canyon assistance money was part of a gift. “I am still upset. We had the money (in our contingency fund). There was no reason to get involved with the county. I will remain upset for a long time.”
“You don’t owe us money. FEMA owes us the money. We wanted to offer you the assistance,” replied Clark. And for their part, Clark stressed that the El Paso County government has always maintained good working relations with Green Mountain Falls. She said the intent of El Paso County leaders was to assist GMF and other small local towns that incurred serious impacts from the fire and didn’t have many additional resources.
None of the other trustees challenged Clark’s analysis. Former Mayor Tyler Stevens cited the lack of an overall emergency plan for the town as the real culprit, rather than the filing of a FEMA assistance grant. “We don’t have any written procedures,” said Stevens, who serves as a volunteer with the GMF/Chipita Park Fire Department. Trustee Jane Newberry, who oversees the town’s administration, mentioned a “giant breakdown in communications” and expressed confidence that the grant situation has now been resolved. “I would like to move forward,” said Newberry. But Pitrone, while lauding the efforts of emergency workers to save both GMF and Cascade during last summer’s devastating blaze, still expressed concerns about the post-Waldo Canyon fire assistance situation and accused the mayor of not communicating enough with the board.
Worthey, though, took issue with Pitrone’s comments. She noted that during the fire, she spoke with Pitrone on a daily basis at the public information meetings and informed him and other board members of her attempts to try to secure additional grant funds. These monies were requested to help offset overtime and fuel costs accumulated mostly by the marshal’s office. “To say, I went behind everyone’s back is not true,” said Worthey, who outlined the emergency situation the town faced during the fire. “I didn’t go behind the board’s back,” added the mayor, whose voice got quite emotional when discussing this issue. Other trustees, however, didn’t want to get involved in the Pitrone/Worthey dispute.
The latest dispute between Pitrone and Worthey highlights a trend of growing strained relations among certain elected leaders in GMF. Pitrone and Worthey have clashed continually for months over such issues as Internet broadcasts and live streaming of its regular meetings, the duties of the mayor and trustees in overseeing various departments, the handling of information for the new town hall pursuits, the annual budget and approval of regular financial reports. Oddly enough, Pitrone was a key supporter of Worthey when she won the mayor’s seat last April.