State Holds Back Disaster Money
New Mexicans have needed help after wildfires and floods in recent years. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has done its part: sending money to the state of New Mexico. But the state has not released tens of millions of dollars for contractors who did disaster recovery work.
Alfredo Roybal remembers the summer of 2011, when the Pacheco Fire raged above Nambé Reservoir. “The first thing that came down was a lot of ash and debris, you can see the darker soil here,” he said, stepping through the layer of black that still sits atop the milk chocolate-colored bank of the Nambé River. “There’s little remnants of that now, but it came down—it looked like oil or tar rolling down the mountainside."
Roybal has been the dam tender here for 13 years. He makes sure farmers in Pojoaque, Nambé and El Rancho get their water. That means the reservoir has to hold all the water it can. Not mud, boulders, and dead trees.
So the irrigation district needed help. They got the promise of disaster relief from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and then hired someone to fix the flood damage.
Roybal and Edward Lucero, chair of the Pojoaque Valley Irrigation District, showed off some of the work that was done to keep the reservoir in shape. The two men pointed out trenches, and the new stone and wire walls that help hold sediment and debris out of the lake.
But the irrigation district still hasn’t paid a local contractor for that work. That’s because the state still hasn’t cut them a check even though it has the FEMA money.
“It’s really affected the people who did the work,” Lucero says. “They completed the work over a year ago, about a year and a half ago.”
That’s right: a year and a half after finishing the job, Martin Urban is still waiting to get paid.
And now he may lose his business.
“We’ve been told by our bonding company that because the state owes us over two million dollars, I believe it’s $2.3 million, that we are now a liability to them and they will not be able to bond us anymore,” Urban says.
Bonding is like insurance that the work will get done.
When Urban started contracting more than 20 years ago, he said that he started with a backhoe. He took advantage of programs that help grow minority-owned businesses and rural businesses. And he built his company on government jobs like the Nambé cleanup. If Urban loses his bond, he can’t bid on those anymore.
“If it forces us to shut down, we will have to let go of course of all the employees,” he said, “and it’s going to be hard to make ends meet because we still have bills.”
You’ve heard about New Mexico’s budget problems. But this isn’t about a budget shortfall.
New Mexico’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has the FEMA money. States hold it in a special account and once disaster recovery work has been completed, inspected, and approved, the state is supposed to pay out.
We reached out to the state emergency management department to find out why they haven’t released FEMA money for the Nambé Reservoir repair. Our repeated requests to interview the secretary or other staff were ignored, and they’re holding on to the public documents we requested.
But it turns out Urban’s not the only one waiting.
“We’ve been investigating a litany of concerns at the department that go back several years,” said New Mexico State Auditor Tim Keller.
According to a letter Keller’s office sent the department in early 2015, New Mexico’s emergency management agency hadn’t paid out $40 million in disaster relief. The auditors couldn’t see “any valid reason” for that.
“We’re concerned about the short term financial viability of the department to even function as it should,” Keller said.
The department still hasn’t handed in its 2015 audit that was due last December. That landed the department on the auditor’s "At Risk" list.
Keller’s office gave the department time to fix things, but, “time is running out," he said, "and we will probably be taking some significant action with respect to the agency in the fall if these problems aren’t remedied in the next month or so.”
That might be too late for Urban and his contracting business.
“What the state's doing is wrong,” Urban said. “It affects small businesses. If they’re here to help a small business, why aren’t they, by paying after a job is completed, especially a year and a half later?”
That’s just one of the questions the state has yet to answer.
This story was co-reported for KUNM and the Santa Fe Reporter. Check out Laura's print story for more about missing FEMA payments.