HELENA — The troubled agency responsible for preparing Montana for emergencies has been beset by lawsuits by former employees, claims of a dysfunctional work environment and now complaints that overly burdensome and shifting regulations are causing headaches for several counties.
Montana Disaster and Emergency Services distributes money to the counties and to Native American tribes from federal grants such as the Emergency Management Response Program, money that is used to pay for salaries, equipment and training. The state's share of EMRP funding last year came to nearly $3.2 million, and that money makes up a big portion of most counties' overall preparedness budgets — 30 to 50 percent or more.
The Montana Association of Counties says 10 counties have dropped out of the program amid complaints that the DES' reporting requirements have them drowning in paperwork and takes away from time better spent planning and training for emergencies. They further complain there is often a lag in expense reimbursements, unexplained changes in regulations and a perception that state officials aren't taking their concerns seriously.
Other county coordinators echoed the complaints but said they can't afford to drop out.
"Without the grant funding there wouldn't be a program. So they're stuck," said Cheri Kilby, DES coordinator for Fergus County, which dropped out of the program two years ago.
At least three county coordinators defended the state agency, saying the paperwork complaints are exaggerated and that DES was only doing what was required of it by federal grant overseers.
Department of Military Affairs spokesman Maj. Tim Crowe, whose agency covers DES, said recent changes in compliance requirements by the federal government have tightened the grants programs and led to the counties' frustration.
"The Department of Military Affairs is actively pursuing better ways to communicate with all of our stakeholders," Crowe said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "We have committed to them our direct assistance to overcome each of these obstacles as we focus on making the grants process as seamless and efficient as possible."
The friction comes amid multiple lawsuits against the agency by former DES employees who claim they were wrongfully terminated or forced out and the recent release of an internal "climate survey" that describes a dysfunctional work environment within DES where workers feared reprisals from bullying managers.
The complaints have resulted in legislators calling for explanations from officials with DES and the Department of Military Affairs. Gov. Steve Bullock has ordered a new internal investigation updating the 2012 look into the work environment at DES.
Many of the agency's new grants reporting requirements came after a 2011 federal audit found shortcomings in how DES was administering its grants. One of the findings by the Department of Homeland Security audit, which looked at the years 2007 to 2009, was that the state agency didn't have complete files on its sub-grantees — which include the counties — and was missing documentation to support some reimbursement requests.
As a result, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requested DES revise its system to ensure a comprehensive accounting of its sub-grantees' finances. The Homeland Security department's inspector general office sent a March 1 letter that said all of the issues found in the audit had been resolved.
But several counties say the state agency has gone overboard. The Montana Association of Counties polled its members last fall and received responses from nearly three dozen counties. The majority criticized DES for needless paperwork, being late in distributing grant award letters and delaying reimbursements.
"The general feeling is that while counties do recognize some changes were needed due to the audit, they also feel that (DES) has gone over the cliff with requirements," said association executive director Harold Blattie in an email to The Associated Press. "They do say that management of actual emergencies is still functioning, mostly because the strength of the local DES coordinators and programs."
Blattie said 10 counties dropped out over the frustration. Data provided by the Department of Military Affairs showed that 11 counties and two tribes are not participating in the program this year.
Linda Williams, the coordinator for Chouteau County, said the agency imposes unrealistic time frames, unexpected policy changes and requires documentation that sets coordinators scrambling for meeting agendas and lists of people who attended those meetings. Much of that is duplicative, but communication with state grant administrators is poor and they are often not willing to work with the coordinators, she said.
"I've been in this for nearly 30 years and in my perception, state DES used to have an excellent reputation and credibility throughout the state. In the past few years, I think we've lost a lot of that credibility," Williams told the AP in a recent interview.
Greg Speer of Phillips County wrote a letter to Blattie that said plainly, "the EPMG program is not working."
DES officials have been traveling the state to solicit feedback and answer questions, and the agency plans to incorporate changes or create a "frequently asked questions" sheets based on what they find, Crowe said.
The agency received support from coordinators in Prairie, Stillwater and Musselshell counties, saying the state DES had to make the changes as a result of the increased federal scrutiny.
Carol Arkell, the Stillwater County coordinator, praised the DES for a $380,000 check last month to upgrade the county's communications infrastructure. Jeff Gates of Musselshell County said the state agency was very responsive when the county lost 100 homes to fire and floods over the past two years.
Both say they haven't had problems with the paperwork or in communicating with state officials.
"It's nothing that's overwhelming," Gates said. "My biggest issue is how do I look at my constituents and say there is $30,000, but I won't take it because I don't want to do some paperwork?"