Justin Van Fleet, a 28-year-old call center worker was stunned. He received a letter from FEMA in March asking him to repay the $20,000 in disaster funds he had received from them, within 30 days.
Van Fleet was living in trailer provided by the agency after the 2008 Cedar River flood destroyed his home and possessions. He successfully argued his case for financial aid and seven months later he got a part of his life back, with a check to help him start over.
However, and the "however" is a big one, FEMA now has decided that Van Fleet's payment, and 5,500 others, were made in error due to an eligibility issue. Yahoo News reports that FEMA admits their employees did not follow proper procedures in determining eligibility, but the federal agency is obligated to recover the money.
Spokeswoman Rachel Racusen says, "We are committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars." Huh? How about being committed to handing the funds out properly in the first place?
Van Fleet and others have a problem. The money they received isn't sitting in a bank. It's in victims' new mortgages and home repairs, things needed to survive, after losing everything. But FEMA has a heart, sort of.
Those asked to repay FEMA's $22 million dollar bungling of funds have a couple of options. They can appeal, apply for a hardship waiver, or set up a repayment plan. Van Fleet is working on an appeal.
FEMA insists it has fixed many of the problems that the Department of Homeland Security inspector general and others brought to light in the disaster agency's doling out funds, and has cut its error rate. However, reducing a figure at the expense of those who have placed trust in an agency to accurately determine eligibility is just plain wrong.
Perhaps FEMA's "reviews" of claims should begin before the money is distributed. It would seem a longer timeframe for payment would be more acceptable than the possibility of a surprise $20,000 bill in the mail several years later.