Audit Questions Long Beach Payment To Local Contractor - - The News for South Mississippi

Audit Questions Long Beach Payment To Local Contractor

On August 30th, Long Beach was littered with hurricane debris. Getting search teams past the mess and into decimated neighborhoods was virtually impossible. Former alderman Jimmy Levens happened to be in the right place at the right time.

"I was thinking where do you want me to go," the contractor remembered.

Levens had a contracting company and enough construction equipment to clear a path past debris covered streets and down to trapped neighbors.

"We started pushing our way down Church to Magnolia," Levens said. "There's a picture somewhere where I'm on a dozer and you can't see me. I'm pushing the debris and you can't see me."

Long Beach hired Levens without initially signing a contract, a problem noted by an independent auditor who's been looking at how the city paid for its recovery.

At the time, that problem was the furthest thing from Mayor Billy Skellie's mind.

"In those days immediately after the storm, there was a whole lot of things that probably wouldn't fly Homeland Security's criteria of how you do business," he said while answering questions about the audit.

The audit review was done May 18. It cited Long Beach for letting Levens work without negotiating his fees up front.

"The city did not negotiate the cost components of the agreement and had not decided upon billing rates when the work was done," the auditor wrote.

Levens countered by saying what he did in Long Beach was no different that what he did in Gulfport or Pass Christian.

"We used the same contract that we used in all the other cities," he said.

Levens charged Long Beach $170,663 for that initial week of work. And the city passed the bill on to FEMA so it would reimburse Long Beach for cutting a check to the contractor for his services. He received that check on December 20, 2005. 

The audit by Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General says that bill shouldn't have been paid because it "was not a reasonable transaction in accordance with sound business practices."

"I'm having a problem with where the problem is," the mayor said. "FEMA approved this payment. MEMA, their auditors, they approved it."

Long Beach alderman Richard Burton attended the audit review. He's seen the report. And he's read the city's initial response to it.

"The overall picture that was painted by the auditor was fairly negative as to how business was transacted after the storm," he said. "At this point, I'm concerned, but I'm not losing any sleep over it, because it isn't done yet."

And once the audit is done, Mayor Skellie is certain Long Beach will be cleared. If it's not, both the mayor and the contractor say Levens is liable.

"If there is a problem with the payment, it would be Mr. Levens who would have to make it good. It's not the city of Long Beach," the mayor said.

The same audit review also said Long Beach erred by making $16,000 in interest on advance money sent to the city by FEMA. Again, the mayor said Long Beach did nothing wrong. And he expects the city's answers to the audit to prove he's right.

by Brad Kessie

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