Article Courtesy of The Tampa
By Steve Bousquet
Published October 16, 2017
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
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
The delay drags on even as Scott predicted "good change" that would
benefit Florida residents after Donald Trump moved into the White House
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
"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
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
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
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
"How am I going to do that work if I don't have any cash coming in?"
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
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."