Homeland Security Department To Establish Arbitration Panels To Resolve Disputes Over Hurricane Recovery Projects

Cochran & Wicker Welcome Move as New Tool for Communities to Overcome Storm Woes

August 7, 2009

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker today welcomed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) action to establish arbitration panels to resolve outstanding disputes over public assistance claims stemming from the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Thursday announced the formation of the arbitration process, following a congressional directive included in recently-enacted legislation. The panels are intended to expedite the resolution of disputed public assistance claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“There are school, hospital and infrastructure projects in Mississippi that aren’t being completed because of disputes over FEMA eligibility judgments.  This new arbitration process provides an alternative for Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, for instance, to take its case to an independent body for resolution,” Cochran said.

“An appeals process through FEMA headquarters can take years, so these voluntary arbitration panels will provide another avenue for communities and other entities who are seeking to resolve disputes over recovery funding,” Wicker said.  “This is a positive development that should expedite rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast.”

Congress established the arbitration panels to give communities and other entities access to a process, independent of DHS, to settle their disputed applications for FEMA recovery payments on projects over $500,000.  The arbitration process may be used instead of the current FEMA appeals process.  An arbitration panel’s decision would be final and binding.

Rules regulating the arbitration process are expected to be printed in the Federal Register by Aug. 31.  The three-person arbitration panels will be made up of neutral, third-party judges, with the Federal Civilian Board of Contract Appeals providing the primary pool of judges.

As examples of the many projects that could be affected by the new arbitration process, there are ongoing disputes over FEMA public assistance eligibility and payments related to the Bay St. Louis-Waveland Municipal School District’s Second Street Elementary School, the rebuilding of the Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis, and the replacement of the Mississippi State Port’s Shed 14 and Shed 15.

The arbitration panel initiative was spearheaded in the Senate by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and supported by Cochran as ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.