The state agency responsible for administering federal Homeland Security grants invited Metro Council members in for briefings this week on the agency’s decision to strip Mayor-President Kip Holden’s office of control over grants designated for the parish.
East Baton Rouge Metro Council members who attended said they are concerned about a potential loss of some grant funds if the Holden administration doesn’t cooperate by providing needed information to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker said he met with GOHSEP’s staff at their invitation on Monday to review their documents and discuss the grant situation.
Walker said he recommended GOHSEP invite other council members to also review the documents and learn about the agency’s procedures.
Several council members — C. Denise Marcelle, Alison Gary, Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois, Donna Collins-Lewis, and an aide to Ronnie Edwards — met with GOHSEP officials on Wednesday.
Walker said the council has not received any information from Holden or from JoAnne Moreau, director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, since GOHSEP removed control of the grants from the mayor’s office.
“We haven’t heard a peep from them,” Walker said.
Gary said GOHSEP officials expressed a willingness to work with the city-parish to make sure it receives reimbursement for money already spent on Homeland Security projects wherever that is possible.
“I don’t know what the politics of this is,” Gary said. “I just don’t want it to come out of the city-parish budget.”
Holden has challenged GOHSEP’s authority to require that the parish sheriff review and sign off on certain homeland security grants. The mayor has said that essentially gives the sheriff veto power over grant spending.
The mayor hired outside legal counsel this week to represent the city in its dispute with GOHSEP.
GOHSEP Deputy Director Clay Rives said the agency extended individual invitations to the council members for a visit “because we wanted to present what we have and show them why we took the actions we took.”
The agency has cited deficiencies in the way the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security has handled grants, including failure to itemize purchases submitted for reimbursement; noncompliance with program rules, and failure to provide required documentation.
GOHSEP has determined $362,784 in expenses the city-parish submitted for the fiscal year 2008 grant are not eligible for reimbursement because they lacked sufficient documentation, did not comply with program rules or exceeded the amount available from the grant for that year.
GOHSEP designated the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and Ascension Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness as new grant managers and fiduciary agents for the grants.
GOHSEP’s decision means the mayor will have to go through the Sheriff’s Office for projects funded by Homeland Security grants. For regional projects, the controlling agent will be the Ascension Parish Homeland Security office.
Walker, Marcelle, Gary and Bourgeois expressed concerns after meeting with GOHSEP officials about how the administration is dealing with the state agency.
They said the city-parish needs to work with GOHSEP to keep the parish from potentially losing federal grant funds.
Walker said “the people we met with were extremely polite and co-operative and were willing to do anything to make things work.”
However, Walker said, they don’t appear to be getting reciprocal co-operation from Moreau’s office.
Walker said records he was shown indicate Moreau’s office has “been given every chance in the world to abide by the rules and the guidelines but were indignant in their response instead of being co-operative.”
Murphy J. Foster III, the outside legal counsel retained by Holden, said the city wants to work things out with GOHSEP if possible.
“We don’t want to go to war with them,” Foster said. “We don’t want to sue them. Hopefully we can find some middle ground. Nobody wants to make sure this funding is obtained any more than the mayor.”
Walker, Marcelle and Gary said they are particularly concerned about a looming, Dec. 15 deadline to close out a $1.3 million Homeland Security grant from fiscal year 2008.
Marcelle said somebody from the Holden administration needs to sit down with GOHSEP’s staff and provide the state agency with information to ensure the city-parish gets reimbursed for as much money as possible from the grant.
Marcelle said it appeared from the information she was provided that the city-parish hasn’t provided sufficient documentation to explain some of the expenses under the grant.
“What they [GOHSEP] showed me concerns me greatly,” Marcelle said. “If we don’t do something, the city-parish is going to have to replace some of the money that they’ve already spent. We’re running out of time.”
Rives confirmed that the fiscal year 2008 grant ends on Dec. 15 and said reimbursement requests have to be in by that date.
GOHSEP is willing to work with the mayor’s office “to try to pay any expense that they’ve already obligated, but it’s imperative that they come to the table and work with us,” Rives said.
He said GOHSEP will do whatever it can to ensure federal funds meant for East Baton Rouge Parish are spent in the parish.
Bourgeois said it’s a “distinct possibility,” based on the information he received from GOHSEP, that the city-parish might not be reimbursed for some Homeland Security related spending.
“It’s extremely concerning,” Bourgeois said.
Holden defended his handling of Homeland Security grants in a news release Tuesday, saying “no money has been misused, mismanaged or misallocated.”