Everyone on all sides of the controversy over flood recovery in Richwood can agree on one thing: the Federal Emergency Management Agency released $500,000 to the city to fix a damaged water intake, and the money was received.
What happened after that all depends on who you ask, and, even then, it’s a complicated mess.
According to a report in Thursday’s edition of the Gazette-Mail, records indicate the city either spent $400 or $22,000 to repair the intake. From there, some of the money, according to Mayor Chris Drennen, went to pay for other improvement projects and repairs after the devastating June 2016 flood.
Spreading the money to other projects isn’t allowed by FEMA, something Drennen says she now knows. She has tossed some of the blame at a consulting firm the city paid $225,000 to retain, saying they advised city officials that Richwood didn’t have to spend all of the money specifically on the water intake.
Drennen, who remains mayor, has been charged with embezzlement relating to alleged misuse of funds for flood recovery, specifically for paying herself $30 an hour for her role with the Incident Command Structure, an organization formed to coordinate response to the flood. She has said that money is what would have been paid to a FEMA official doing the same work.
Former city clerk Abigail McClung has been charged with embezzlement and computer fraud. Former mayor Bob Henry Baber and former police chief Lloyd Allen Cogar are facing charges of embezzlement and misuse of purchasing cards.
Those charges come from a state auditor’s report about alleged misuse of flood recovery funding, but, even in the criminal charges, it isn’t clear if the money that was allegedly taken was from the $500,000 FEMA gave for the water intake. State officials say poor recordkeeping by the city makes it impossible to tell where that money went.
City officials, city workers and residents also disagree on whether the water intake was even severely damaged.
What’s left is a confusing situation. Whether through bad advice, inexperience or bad intent, it’s clear that funds were misused. Whether that amounts to a crime is something to be figured out in court.
What can get lost in trying to sort all of this out is that federal money was issued to fix a problem to help the residents of Richwood, and it didn’t happen — not the way it was supposed to, at any rate. As is so often the case, those who depended on their city and federal governments were let down and are suffering because of it.
There are water quality issues in Richwood, and line breaks and leaks have been a problem — despite the city continuing to raise utility rates. The West Virginia Public Service Commission determined that there isn’t anything wrong with the drinking water, but that’s another statement not all residents take at face value.
No wonder there’s a trust problem in Richwood.