Sunday, December 10, 2017
Politics

A year after Hurricane Matthew, counties ask Rick Scott: Where's our money?

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-of-the-way Putnam has a very slim property tax base, scarce rainy-day 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 letter 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 Division 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 that is the case.

"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? Not yet.

Moscoso 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."

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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