After Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida, an impatient Gov. Rick Scott insisted that all counties remove debris, reopen roads and restore a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible.
Yet as the costs of Irma’s Category 4 fury are still being calculated, several North Florida counties hammered by Hurricane Matthew — one year ago — are still waiting to be repaid for the cost of debris removal, road repair and police overtime from that storm.
Strangled in red tape, counties fault the state for persistent delays, noting that FEMA has authorized millions in reimbursement that Scott’s Division of Emergency Management has still not yet released.
“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.”
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Putnam, a county of 72,000 just east of Gainesville, has an annual budget of $119 million and says it is 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 the county two weeks later.
Out of patience, 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 didn’t know why reimbursement takes this long but is looking into it.
“If it’s sitting here, then it needs to be distributed,” Perry said.
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 also is close to the state’s 10 mill tax cap, or $10 for every $1,000 of property value. It is one of 29 “fiscally constrained” Florida counties where a 1 mill tax hike generates less than $5 million.
After a storm, counties send bills to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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 Hurricane 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.”
Flagler County, on the east coast north of Daytona Beach, 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 DEM.
“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.”
Flagler, on the Atlantic Ocean, suffered massive damage to its dunes that will take more than $20 million to repair. Dunes act as protective berms and protect 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 DEM parted ways in the spring with a private vendor that worked with counties on the requests for reimbursement. The agency later fired three employees who worked with FEMA on counties’ behalf.
“Now, we deal with FEMA directly,” Coffey said. “We have to fight the FEMA bureaucracy for everything.”
Gov. Scott’s administration denies that is the case.
“Absolutely not,” DEM 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.”
Division of Emergency Management Director Wes Maul, 29, who has been in charge since Oct. 1 following the departure of Bryan Koon, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Are the checks in the mail? No.
Spokesman Moscoso said the agency 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 10totaling $3.6 million for county-wide debris removal. The state must first approve the requests, a step known as grantee review, before they are eligible for aid.
“We ask that you expedite these approvals,” Coffey told DEM on Sept. 26.
That was a week after Scott chided counties and cities for not removing debris from Hurricane Irma more aggressively, saying: “The state stands ready to assist communities in any way possible.”
Flagler sits and waits 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’re yet to see a penny.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.