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Damage Control

Hartford's Public Works Director has been fired, and two crucial federal deadlines for work on the city's flood-control system are looming

Daniel D'Ambrosio

April 28, 2009

The recent firing of Public Works Director Clarence Corbin came at a bad time just as the levees that protect billions of dollars worth of property in Hartford from flooding by the Connecticut River face two critical federal deadlines. The flood-control system, built in phases from 1938 to 1981 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, does not currently meet standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect against a so-called 100-year flood, occurring on average every century.

Neither does the flood-control system meet the standards set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect against a 500-year flood like the one that devastated New Orleans. It was Corbin's job to make sure the levees would hold against both of these floods.

Hartford has provisional certification for its levees from FEMA, and is facing a July 5 deadline to bring the system up to the standard for full certification. If the city misses that deadline, the system would be decertified and a year-long process would begin that could ultimately result in the requirement for thousands of businesses, homes, and public buildings to have flood insurance a debacle by any measure.

"It would be an absolute black eye and embarrassment to the city," said Richard L. Moffitt, a consulting engineer who was working with Corbin and ended up playing a role in his dismissal. "I can't even imagine trying to approach Travelers, Aetna or Phoenix [and saying] 'By the way, we lost accreditation for the levee, your building is going to be underwater.'"

When Corbin was called to Mayor Eddie Perez's office on April 2 and fired, he was literally left speechless.

"I was stunned, I didn't have a response," Corbin said in an interview last week. "I looked at [Perez] unable to respond. I'm still living with the shock and perhaps shame of it. All I'm trying to do is get my reputation back and serve another community if I can."

In a press release, the city stated that Corbin, 49, was fired because he "circumvented the public bidding process and attempted to conceal the payments to a lobbying firm by routing them through an engineering firm."

But Corbin and Moffitt say the city is twisting the truth. They say Corbin hired Moffitt to help with grant applications and engineering work required on the city's flood-control system, and that Moffitt hired The Ferguson Group in Washington, D.C., as a subcontractor to lobby at the federal level to help find funds to do that work.

Corbin, in other words, says he was one step removed from Ferguson and had no direct connection to the firm. The city maintains Corbin was in on hiring Fegurson even though he was "given clear guidance that he was not allowed to hire lobbyists outside the public process required by City law and approved by the Mayor and City Council."

The work that needs to be done on the levees consists primarily of cleaning out thousands of cubic yards of sediment and debris from drains and from an underground siphon. Corbin said he tried for at least a year to get the money to do the work, but the Perez administration couldn't come up with it.

As the deadline loomed ever closer, Corbin said he turned to Moffitt, a civil engineer with 37 years of experience and contacts in state and federal agencies, to find other sources of revenue. Corbin says his department paid Moffitt $7,000 to fill out grant applications and provide technical assistance, and that Moffitt was instrumental in getting $5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection for work on the flood-control system.

The payment to Moffitt was approved by the city Finance Department and was no different than hundreds of transactions he has entered into in his two years as director of Public Works, according to Corbin. He says the same goes for an additional $24,000 he requested to go after federal dollars.

"If the mayor wanted to give us the dollars, I would have just taken it and not pursued anything," said Corbin. "Instead we got significantly cut, with 20 percent of [the DPW] work force taken away."

Corbin says he felt he had no choice but to look outside of the city for resources to fix the flood-control system.

"We had to do that or things could deteriorate rapidly," said Corbin, whose background is as a flood engineer.

Moffitt told the Advocate he has worked for many towns in Connecticut and that he has often teamed up with the Ferguson Group on projects. Moffitt handles the engineering, and Ferguson lobbies federal agencies for money.

"The city is claiming I'm a lobbyist," said Moffitt. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wouldn't have hired the Ferguson Group if I was a lobbyist myself."

Sarah Barr, director of communications for Mayor Perez, said the city stands by its assertions, and has turned over the results of its inquiry to the "appropriate federal and state agencies."

Barr said the city will spend the remaining $700,000 of a $13 million city bond passed in 2006 for work on the flood control system plus $1.3 million of the recent $5 million DEP grant to complete the work required for FEMA for a total of $2 million.

"Challenges do remain and FEMA's accreditation cannot be guaranteed, however, the City's team of professionals have a valid plan to complete the FEMA 100-year certification by the July 5, 2009 deadline," wrote Barr in an e-mail.

Moffitt says no way. He says the work that needs to be done could cost as much as $10 million, and that the city will be lucky to finish by year's end.

"In reality if you were really doing things the correct way this work should have been started a year ago," Moffitt said.

But an even bigger problem is looming in the 500-year certification by the Corps of Engineers, according to both Moffitt and Corbin. To meet those standards is going to take about $50 million the city doesn't have, with the deadline probably only about 18 months away, according to Moffitt.

Barr says Connecticut's congressional delegation "has assured us they are working to obtain funding to help the city complete its work."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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