Storm costs still un­paid

A year af­ter Hur­ri­cane Matthew, mil­lions from FEMA are stuck in the state’s red tape.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY STEVE BOUSQUET Times/Her­ald Tal­la­has­see Bu­reau

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE — Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma rav­aged Florida, an im­pa­tient Gov. Rick Scott or­dered coun­ties to re­move de­bris, re­open roads and restore nor­malcy as fast as pos­si­ble.

Yet as the costs of Irma’s Cat­e­gory 4 fury are still be­ing cal­cu­lated, North Florida cities and coun­ties ham­mered by Hur­ri­cane Matthew a year ago are still wait­ing to be paid for the cost of de­bris re­moval, road re­pair and po­lice over­time.

Stran­gled in red tape, coun­ties fault the state for per­sis­tent de­lays, not­ing that the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency has au­tho­rized tens of mil­lions in re­im­burse­ment dol­lars that Scott’s ad­min­is­tra­tion still has not yet dis­trib­uted.

“It’s a bot­tle­neck,” said Larry Har­vey, chair­man of the Put­nam County Com­mis­sion in Palatka. “We don’t have the re­sources to float these types of losses.”

Put­nam, a county of 72,000 east of Gainesville, has an an­nual bud­get of $119 million and says it’s owed $1.3 million from Matthew.

It will get worse. The county now projects un­planned costs of $1.4 million more for Hur­ri­cane Irma re­cov­ery, and $300,000 from another storm, a nor’easter that blew through two weeks later.

Like other cash-strapped coun­ties await­ing pay­ment, out-ofthe-way Put­nam has a very slim prop­erty tax base, scarce rainy­day cash re­serves and few new jobs on the way.

Put­nam is close to the state’s 10 mill tax cap, or $10 for ev­ery $1,000 of tax­able prop­erty value. It is one of 29 “fis­cally con­strained” Florida coun­ties where a 1 mill tax hike gen­er­ates less than $5 million.

Fed up with the de­lay, Put­nam County sent leg­is­la­tors a let-

ter Oct. 6, plead­ing for help with “re­im­burse­ment is­sues Put­nam County is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing with the state of Florida . . . Our ask is sim­ple. We need leg­isla­tive ac­tion that gives coun­ties timely re­im­burse­ment.”

Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, who rep­re­sents Put­nam County and who got that let­ter, said he doesn’t know why re­im­burse­ment is tak­ing so long.

The de­lay drags on even as Scott pre­dicted “good change” that would ben­e­fit Florida res­i­dents af­ter Don­ald Trump moved into the White House in Jan­uary.

Scott’s in­terim di­rec­tor of emer­gency man­age­ment, Wes Maul, 29, who has been in charge since Oct. 1, ad­dressed the coun­ties’ anger for the first time Thurs­day.

“We’re work­ing re­ally hard to make sure that the state does not stand be­tween coun­ties and their money,” Maul told the Times/ Her­ald.

Maul was ready to dis­cuss the prob­lem at a meet­ing of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, but the chair­man, Sen. Jack Lat­vala, R-Clear­wa­ter, post­poned dis­cus­sion of the is­sue un­til the week of Oct. 23, in part be­cause nu­mer­ous out-of-town of­fi­cials were sched­uled to tes­tify about the state’s opi­oid epi­demic.

Lat­vala said state of­fi­cials got the mes­sage and that he ex­pects to see “some ac­tion” by then.

He told state of­fi­cials to “get on that, and get it done.”

Sen. Au­drey Gib­son, D-Jack­sonville, whose Du­val County is still wait­ing for $27 million, said: “I’m very dis­ap­pointed by it. I want to know where the money is.”

Af­ter a storm, coun­ties send bills to FEMA. As re­quests are ap­proved, FEMA gives states ap­proval to draw down money so it can be re­turned to coun­ties.

Levy County is wait­ing for about $345,000 in re­im­burse­ments from Hur­ri­cane Her­mine in Au­gust 2016, and its neigh­bor, Dixie County, is wait­ing for about $500,000 from Her­mine.

Dixie County emer­gency chief Scott Garner said he’s op­ti­mistic the money will ar­rive soon. Asked what’s tak­ing so long, Garner said: “I don’t know.”

In St. Peters­burg, coun­cil mem­bers learned Thurs­day that the city is still wait­ing for the bulk of its $1.3 million re­im­burse­ment from Her­mine. So far, the city has re­ceived about $250,000, City Ad­min­is­tra­tor Gary Corn­well said.

Most of the coun­ties left to fend for them­selves are strongly Repub­li­can that have sup­ported Scott twice and helped hand Florida to Trump dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Fla­gler County, which sup­ported Trump with 60 per­cent of its vote, is still wait­ing for $4.5 million in re­im­burse­ments.

County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Craig Cof­fey called the state “as slow as mo­lasses” in writ­ing checks for re­im­burse­ments, and he at­trib­uted the prob­lem to staff turnover at the state’s Depart­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment.

“The sys­tem is bro­ken some­how,” Cof­fey told the Times/Her­ald. “It’s only when you scream at the top of your lungs that they pay at­ten­tion to you.”

On the east coast north of Day­tona Beach, Fla­gler suf­fered mas­sive dam­age to its dunes that will take more than $20 million to re­pair. Dunes act as pro­tec­tive berms and shield coastal homes from more flood­ing.

“How am I go­ing to do that work if I don’t have any cash coming in?” Cof­fey asked.

Cof­fey said Fla­gler had to bor­row $15 million to make up for the loss of its cash re­serves, and the loan will re­quire pay­ment of up to $100,000 on in­ter­est alone — “un­nec­es­sar­ily,” he said.

The county man­ager said prob­lems with the state be­came worse af­ter the state parted ways in the spring with a pri­vate ven­dor that worked with coun­ties on re­im­burse­ment re­quests. State of­fi­cials later fired three em­ploy­ees at the Depart­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment who worked with FEMA on the coun­ties’ be­half.

“Now, we deal with FEMA di­rectly,” Cof­fey said. “We have to fight the FEMA bu­reau­cracy for ev­ery­thing.”

Scott’s ad­min­is­tra­tion de­nies thatis­the­case.

“Ab­so­lutely not,” Depart­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment spokesman Al­berto Moscoso said in an email. “DEM helps ap­pli­cants with draft­ing ap­peals, for­mu­lat­ing ar­gu­ments and any other ex­pressed needs. In ad­di­tion, the di­vi­sion hosts calls be­tween FEMA and ap­pli­cants to help re­solve any is­sues or con­cerns.”

But are the checks in the mail? No­tyet.

Mos co so said the depart­ment needs four to six weeks of “pro­cess­ing time” be­fore send­ing money to coun­ties.

The big-money re­quests for re­im­burse­ment are known as Cat­e­gory A and B re­quests at FEMA. Smaller re­quests are as­signed other letters.

Fla­gler County records show that it sub­mit­ted two Cat­e­gory A re­quests on May 10 to­tal­ing $3.6 million for coun­ty­wide de­bris re­moval. The state must first ap­prove the re­quests be­fore they are el­i­gi­ble for aid.

“We ask that you ex­pe­dite these ap­provals,” Cof­fey told the depart­ment Sept. 26.

That was a week af­ter Scott chided coun­ties and cities for not re­mov­ing de­bris from last month’s Hur­ri­cane Irma more ag­gres­sively, say­ing: “The state stands ready to as­sist com­mu­ni­ties in any way pos­si­ble.”

Yet Fla­gler of­fi­cials sit and wait for the state to help dig it out of a fi­nan­cial hole from last year’s hur­ri­cane.

“It’s been a year,” Cof­fey said. “And we’ve yet to see a penny.”

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