Illinois communities may not be able to compete for millions of dollars in federal money to prevent disaster-related problems because of an error.
The exact nature of the goof is under debate, and becoming subject to finger-pointing between politicians. At issue is eligibility for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Pre-Disaster Mitigation program, which has $400 million of grant funding available this year.
Illinois has received more than $18 million in grants from the program since 2003.
Those funds have been used to help communities lay plans for what needs to be done locally to prevent potential disasters from being worse — from shoring up backup power for the water supply to enhancing flood walls, updating tornado sirens and crafting regional emergency communication plans.
What went wrong
The deadline for states and tribal areas to submit paperwork to be eligible to participate in the current round of funding was Jan. 31. A completed state application doesn't appear to have been received. That's where the agreement ends between the parties.
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency insists it's the fault of an error in the federal eGrants processing system, one that started cropping up days before the deadline — something about which, state officials said, they notified the feds.
“Illinois was one of nearly two dozen other states and tribes that experienced technical glitches or system errors with the FEMA online portal, which is why we are working diligently with our congressional delegation to ensure that the federal government considers these grant applications," IEMA spokeswoman Rebecca Clark said. "A technical error with FEMA’s system shouldn’t prevent Illinois communities from having a fair shot at receiving these grant funds.”
But FEMA insists that's not the case.
"After a thorough review of all technical data, Illinois’ failure to submit a timely and complete application was unrelated to a technical error," the agency said in a statement Friday afternoon, further noting that "To ensure fairness, applicants were given equal access to program information, including all relevant application requirements and deadlines. Further, all applicants were held to the same standards for review. The responsibility is theirs to understand these requirements and request assistance where needed. Multiple training opportunities, both online and in person, were made available to all applicants."
All but two states submitted complete applications, FEMA said.
How PDM funds get used
Each year it's eligible for the federal grants, IEMA officials take requests from local governments and send the applications to FEMA, which then competitively evaluates the requests. There are about $800 million in requests this year nationwide for the $400 million available.
The funds aren't designed to help with recovery from existing disasters or emergencies. Most local governments request money for pre-planning work.
That's the case with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which does work in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties.
It received about $49,000 a few years ago and used it to draft a 750-page document outlining steps 15 area communities including Peoria, Pekin, East Peoria, Washington and Morton could take to dampen the effect of any future local disasters.
That plan is now waiting for IEMA approval and FEMA approval, said Michael Bruner, a planner at Tri-County. After both agencies sign off, local entities can begin applying for grant money to get the work done.
"Obviously the planning work has to get done before they can actively start applying for things," said Eric Miller, Tri-County's executive director.
Christian County, which was hit by tornadoes last year that badly damaged part of Taylorville, received a $46,000 planning grant last year and is still working on its document, said Mike Crews, the county's emergency management director.
He was less worried about losing out on funding in the current round of grants because their process is still under way, and suggested he didn't think the community would be eligible now anyway, absent other FEMA disaster qualifications.
Several communities in the Illinois River valley have succeeded in getting larger amounts to fix existing problems they've identified — what IEMA calls long-term projects that take years of development.
Among them, Ottawa received nearly $1.2 million for flood wall and levee alterations, and Peru and Marseilles got $365,000 and $1.2 million, respectively, for work on flood walls at waste water treatment plants.
Despite the problems with PDM money, Illinois remains eligible for other FEMA funds from separate, competitive programs for flood mitigation and hazard mitigation grants, as well as ordinary funds available through disaster declarations.
Federal lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing state and federal officials for answers. Five downstate Republicans, led by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, asked Gov. JB Pritzker's administration on Tuesday to answer a series of questions about the missed deadline.
"Given the recent flooding throughout Illinois, as well as the state's dire financial situation, it is concerning to learn that Illinois is ineligible for PDM funding next year," the lawmakers wrote.
The group, which also includes Reps. Darin LaHood of Peoria, Adam Kinzinger of Channahon, John Shimkus of Collinsville and Mike Bost of Murphysboro, ask for details on "how and why did your administration fail to submit its PDM application?" and the steps the administration will "take to ensure this error is not repeated in future years?"
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, though, says the focus needs to be on getting FEMA to allow Illinois back into the program.
“It is outrageous and unacceptable that bureaucratic red tape is preventing Illinois communities from receiving the funding they need to reduce the impact of flooding," the Moline Democrat said. "While the state of Illinois bears its share of responsibility, pointing fingers right now is counterproductive — that’s why I’ve been focused on finding solutions and supporting the communities that need these resources. At this point, FEMA is the only entity that has the power to reverse this decision — and I will continue to press them to reconsider the state of Illinois’ application and remind FEMA that there are real families and communities that will suffer as a result of this rash and careless decision.”
The next year's eligibility window for the program opens in about six months.