Emergency agency chief blasts budget cuts

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With a number of state agencies facing potential budget cuts for Fiscal Year 2017, the executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) isn’t waiting to talk about what cuts would do to his agency.

“There’s no way that I can respond to another Katrina, 80 out of 82 counties made federal disaster declarations,” said Lee Smithson, “if we had not even another Katrina, if we had another George, I can’t be responsive to the needs of the people because my budget has been cut.”

Budget cuts being considered by the Legislature on Monday indicated that MEMA will be given $3,217,184 for FY2017, down from $3,873 377 in the current fiscal year. Last October, the agency requested $3.8 million for FY2017.

Smithson noted that a 2006 state audit of MEMA found that $6.1 million in funding and 160 employees were needed so that the agency could respond appropriately to any large-scale natural disaster in the state. The only year MEMA received that level of funding was in 2009, he said.

“After the December 23rd tornado outbreak I had an elected official in from a certain county were there was flooding asking why the disaster assessments were taking a long time,” said Smithson.

The reason the initial assessments took longer than usual, he said, is because MEMA has started feeling the effects of the budget cuts made every year since 2009.

He said the biggest cut for MEMA for FY2017 is coming from the reduction of interagency fees. Smithson was told $344,000 of the reduction was because no state agency can charge another any type of fee for a service.

“My concern is interagency fee was never discussed by neither the house or senate.  On Saturday, there was never any real discussion until the committee went into closed door conference,” said Smithson.

He noted that the accountants in his office haven’t come up with that same number in interagency fees, with the “best number” they’ve estimated is about $260,000.

“If the discussion happened earlier, I could’ve come to them in February to come up with a number in advance to show them how much in interagency fees we collected and paid,” said Smithson.

Curently, MEMA is paid by the Mississippi Department of Health from a federal grant to handle their communication in case of a public health emergency and by the Department of Homeland Security for housing their Fusion Center.

In February, Smithson asked both chambers of the House of Representatives to fill 13 vacancies so the agency would be fully staffed and was told he could because the money would be there for those positions.

He filled the last two opening on Friday, and said he isn’t planning on firing anyone.

“I’m not laying anybody off, I gave my word to my people,” said Smithson.

For the next year’s legislative session, Smithson has a plan to try to make sure he can get all the funding possible for MEMA.

“I started on February 1st, and on the 2nd we had tornados, so I didn’t get to the capital as much as I could have. I believe I’ll pitch a tent in the rotunda to get the money I need during the next legislative session,” said Smithson.