City leaders explain financial concerns that led Columbus to pass on FEMA money

COLUMBUS, Miss. (WCBI) – Tuesday, the Columbus City Council voted unanimously to withdraw its FEMA application for reimbursement for the construction of the Sim Scott Community Center after the 2019 tornado.

That was after Mayor Keith Gaskin submitted what appeared to be concerning financial records to the State Auditor’s office days before.

“It looked as if we may be in violation of state legal compliance and the bidding process,” he says.

During his Wednesday press conference, Mayor Gaskin explained how they made the discovery as the city was working to complete its audit. That included the application to be reimbursed by FEMA for close to $250,000 spent on building the center.

FEMA has already reimbursed Columbus for nearly all the money they have applied for in connection with 2019’s EF-3 tornado. For the Sim Scott center, the city would’ve been eligible to be further reimbursed around $1 million, but the insurance company provided the city with about $740,000 that it put towards rebuilding the community center.

Mississippi law requires any public project over $50,000 to have a request for proposals. Projects that cost more than $5,000 require two quotes. The Sim Scott project cost about $900,000.

“What seemed suspicious, just looking at the spreadsheet without knowing all the details, was we ended up with one contractor doing nine different components of the project, many of them separated by just a couple of weeks,” says city attorney Jeff Turnage.

That contractor was Precision Metal Building. Owner Shirley Thompson told WCBI that her company submitted the proper bids and quotes to the city.

“That doesn’t mean that there was anything illegal happening,” Mayor Gaskin says. “It basically was telling me that we just did not have the procedures in place internally to make sure this was happening.”

Turnage says that during the city council’s executive session Tuesday, it was determined the city spent some of their insurance money on non-storm-related projects.

“As a consequence of that, that made it iffy at best to apply for FEMA to get that other $250,000 that we could have gotten,” the attorney says.

Columbus Public Information Officer Joe Dillon, who handles the city’s FEMA applications, believes this will actually help the city with future interactions with FEMA.

“Since we went to them and said, ‘We’ve got this concern, let us explain it to you,'” he says. “They trust us.”

Precision Metal Building is working to provide WCBI with documentation of their bids and quotes for the Sim Scott project.

The mayor says it is also possible that the State Auditor’s Office finds nothing illegal in the report they filled.

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