Las Vegas Sun

October 31, 2014

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Feds owe Nevada businesses and fire district millions for fire prevention work

Firefighters and small businesses in Nevada and California have a simple request for the federal government.

Pay up.

They cleared brush, chopped down trees, and then submitted invoices in expectation that they’d be paid soon after. But that was more than two years ago, and they’re collectively still owed $2.56 million.

Meanwhile, lawmakers such as Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have decried the role of climate change in the wildfires ravaging the West and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has called for more fire prevention funding in a year when such funds seem to have dried up.

But those who have already performed the work are hoping that their simple request to be compensated for it will become a priority for the government.

“It’s work completed, and I haven’t been paid, so yeah, it’s not good,” said James Piercy, owner of Arbor Care, a Lake Tahoe small business that did some of the brush work in the Tahoe basin. “For the last two years, we called them on a weekly basis following up in what the status of payment was going to be and they strung us along forever, and this year we just pretty much gave up on trying to call them.”

The work they performed stems from a grant from the now-defunct Nevada Fire Safe Council, which administered fire prevention grants throughout Nevada.

The nonprofit paid businesses and firefighters to clear brush and create “defensible space” around homes. The money came from grants from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which both offered fire prevention funds in hopes that sound maintenance would make fires less destructive and easier to fight.

But lax accounting practices and inadequate record-keeping led the federal government to freeze the money, and the nonprofit filed for bankruptcy late last year after working to correct the problems.

They let go of their executive director, Andrew List, and submitted new accounting policies to the Forest Service and BLM.

“We’ve done everything that everybody has asked us, and we can’t seem to make any headway on getting people paid,” said Ann Grant, a volunteer who said she spent six uncompensated months revising policies and communicating with federal agencies and businesses before the nonprofit filed for bankruptcy.

She said she’s talked to federal government employees who also want the businesses to get paid for the work they did, meaning the government, the nonprofit and businesses are all in agreement.

So what’s the holdup?

Grant said it’s a matter of bureaucracy.

Three years ago, the Fire Safe Council was paying contractors with Forest Service money for a BLM grant. That’s a big no-no.

The council also had mixed grants in the same bank accounts and had paid rent, insurance and other administrative overhead costs out of that bank account.

Two more strikes.

The mismanagement led to a formal investigation from the Forest Services’ parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, which concluded its investigation this year.

The Forest Service did not respond to requests for comment last week. A representative from the Bureau of Land Management declined to comment, noting that the Justice Department is looking into the matter of the grants and the Fire Safe Council.

Grant said the Fire Safe Council has submitted to audits, revised internal auditing controls, and has tried to work with legislators, federal agencies, businesses and Tahoe-area fire districts to resolve the matter.

But she said the federal government doesn’t seem to have a mechanism to transfer money between the BLM and the Forest Service, two separate agencies under two separate federal departments.

So the situation remains unresolved for work that contractors did in 2010 and early 2011. Those who are owed money say they have one measure to untangle this bureaucratic knot: hope.

“We’re hoping the agencies will work hard to get it resolved,” said John Pang of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District near Lake Tahoe. “There’s auditors and more auditors and more auditors involved.”

The Fire Safe Council lists an outstanding debt of $384,866 to the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District, according to bankruptcy documents shared with the Sun.

That’s about 40 percent of the district’s annual budget, Pang said, so it’s no small debt.

Meanwhile, fire prevention advocates in Nevada say the demise of the Fire Safe Council has hurt their efforts to prevent the type of large-scale wildfires that raged through the Mount Charleston area near Las Vegas and Douglas County in Northern Nevada.

The Fire Safe Council served as an administrative clearinghouse for grants and as a community coordinator for fire prevention education, outreach and labor.

“There’s definitely a need for that type of leadership in these communities throughout Nevada and in Lake Tahoe,” said Trisha York, science and policy liaison at the California Tahoe Conservancy, one of the groups owed money from the Fire Safe Council grant. “They provided the leadership to coordinate and bring all of the local fire districts together to coordinate and have a plan to do these kinds of fire prevention efforts.”

Grant said she attended the recent Lake Tahoe Summit to hear elected officials talk about the importance of fire prevention and the necessity of preserving national treasures like Lake Tahoe.

She said she felt disappointed that no federal agency or elected official has been able to solve this problem.

“As far as I can tell, there’s probably never going to be anything done,” she said. “We have tried to follow every avenue to get help. The fire chiefs here in the Lake Basin, they have done everything to try to help us also. Everything failed. Nobody will help.”

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