Atascadero officials attempt to filch more FEMA funds
November 5, 2009
By KAREN VELIE
There is growing evidence in Atascadero – the recollections of former elected officials, city employees, and previous reports – that shows that some leading city officials purposely lied when they reported that the historic City Hall’s foundation substantially sank during the 2003 San Simeon earthquake.
The disinformation was part of an attempt to get more than $30 million in federal and state disaster relief funds. Of that, approximately $8 million is slated for repairing the un-level foundation.
In doing so, Atascadero city officials denied the existence of a pre-earthquake study that said the City Hall had cracked walls and an uneven foundation before the Dec. 2003 quake occurred.
City officials sought federal and state aid to help repair the historic structure because of damage they said was caused by the 6.5-magnitude quake, including sinking of the foundation, bricks that popped out of the building’s façade, new cracks throughout the building, and water pipes that began to leak.
Though some of the damage occurred during the earthquake, the alleged sinking of the building as well as some of the cracks existed prior to the 2003 disaster, federal disaster officials said.
Investigators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have estimated that the cost of repairing earthquake related damage to the building at approximately $5 million. FEMA officials do not agree with the city’s claims that the bulk of repairs are due to earthquake related damage and not deferred maintenance.
Nevertheless, even though city representatives agree that FEMA is not responsible for deferred maintenance, city officials continue to claim that the building’s foundation issues, as well as other questionable repair costs, are a result of the quake and as such should be covered by FEMA at an estimated cost of $21 million.
Following the quake, the city hired a building damage assessment team that concluded the City Hall’s northeast side was seven inches lower than the high side due to earthquake-induced lowering of parts of the foundation.
Atascadero submitted their findings along with a request for FEMA funds.
However, CalCoastNews has learned because of interviews with city officials, employees, and former elected officeholders in Atascadero that a study of the building prior to the quake documents that the sinking had occurred prior to the quake.
In a June, 2003 article in the San Luis Obispo County Tribune, city officials were reported to discuss a study that says that the northeastern side of the structure was seven inches lower than the western entrance. The Tribune quoted city leaders, including then Community Service Director Geoff English, Assistant City Manager Brady Cherry, and City Maintenance Supervisor Bob Joslin, disagreed about whether the crack riddled 80-year-old city hall and if the structure was originally built at a slant.
In 2008, rumors that city officials had buried the purported report prompted former Mayor Mike Brennler to make a public records request to City Clerk Marcia McClure Torgerson, under the Freedom of Information Act, for any reports that addressed structural deficiencies in the historic city hall building.
McClure Torgerson replied that a review of Brennler’s request with all relevant city departments had turned up no documents.
“I have a strong belief the document does exist and this is just another example of the deception that I faced by certain executive managers while I was on the city council,” Brennler said.
“I do want to point out that there are a lot of good hard working employees in Atascadero but unfortunately there are some with questionable ethics.”
According to The Tribune, former City Council member Marge Mackey rebutted Cherry’s concerns that the building needed to be retrofitted, arguing that she was confident that the un-level cracked building could withstand any problems.
Following the 6.5-magnitude earthquake, the city hired a building damage assessment team that concluded the City Hall’s northeast side was seven inches lower than the high side due to earthquake-induced settlement.
Atascadero submitted their findings along with a request for funds to FEMA.
In 2006, FEMA officials said they did not “believe settlement was caused by the earthquake,” declaring it is not an eligible repair. FEMA noted that there was insufficient evidence to support the city’s claims.
In 2008, city officials fired back with an appeal in which they said the settlement damage did not occur prior to the earthquake and that professionals hired to work on the building before the disaster said there were no settlement issues.
In their appeal, City officials requested that FEMA and the state of California dole out an additional $21 million to repair the structure (generally FEMA provides 75 percent of eligible costs while states fund the remaining 25 percent). FEMA has already provided the city with more than $10 million in City Hall hazard mitigation which includes the city transforming a bowling alley into the city’s current government center.
City officials said in the same appeal that a “FEMA’s soil consultant admits that it would not be unreasonable to conclude that soil liquefaction is possible, under conditions experienced in the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake.”
Last year, CalCoastNews reported that Atascadero city officials had bilked taxpayers out of more than $4 million in disaster aid to reconstruct a youth center under the guise the previous facility had been rendered unsafe during the San Simeon Earthquake.
City officials identified the city’s historic Printery Building as the site of the municipal youth center in their application for FEMA funds.
However, at the time of the quake, the city’s youth center stood approximately a half-mile away, at 5493 Traffic Way in the old hay and feed building.
McClure Torgerson—much maligned for her closed-door policy on public records—claimed boxes of files regarding the youth center sites and the Printery Building were lost or misplaced due to the 2003 earthquake.
Brennler asked Cherry at a City Council meeting if the Printery was being used as a youth center at the time of the earthquake. Even though City Mgr. Wade McKinney continued to claim the Printery was utilized as a youth center in late 2003. Cherry disagreed with his boss and said it was not used by the city’s youth at the time of the quake.
“I have great respect for Brady Cherry, but it was very clear to me that Wade McKinney was exaggerating the use of the Printery as related to a youth center in order to secure additional monies,” Brennler said.
“I wanted to get every penny Atascadero was entitled to, but it is absolutely essential that the funding is legitimate because if monies are acquired through illegitimate means, it is a burden to state and national governments and it sets the stage for other dishonest acts that are not good for the taxpayer.”
In the destructive aftermath of fires, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes across the country, desperate Americans rely on FEMA to help get their lives back in order. But FEMA itself may need to be rescued.
Nationwide, the program is riddled with fraud, abuse, and scandal. Fraudulent FEMA claims over the past few years have cost taxpayers millions of dollars and produced thousands of court cases.
Right now, FEMA continues to negotiate with Atascadero city officials on what City Hall damages it will pay for.