Friday, April 13, 2018
Many Florida counties concerned they will be stuck paying for hurricane evacuation shelters
COLLEEN WIXON TCPALM April 11, 2018
A new interpretation of how hurricane evacuation-shelter costs are reimbursed could end up costing Florida counties millions of dollars and creating lots of red tape.
At issue is who is responsible for paying for hurricane shelters, and how costs are reimbursed by the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Schools usually are used as hurricane shelters because they have generators, cafeterias and the space to accommodate large numbers of people.
For more than 30 years, FEMA has directly reimbursed school districts for preparing shelters, providing staff for operations and cleanup after the storm.
But now FEMA may make counties responsible for those expenses. School districts would bill their counties, which, in turn, would seek reimbursement from FEMA.
The problem, officials say, is that it makes counties responsible for salaries and procedures out of their jurisdiction. A county also could end up footing the bill for expenses determined to be ineligible for reimbursement, said Indian River County Administrator Jason Brown.
"How much money is the county going to be asked to front?" Brown asked.
Indian River County still is waiting for reimbursement from 2016's Hurricane Matthew, which cost the county about $700,000 in staffing and protective measures. Hurricane Irma cost the county more than $1 million last year, he said.
The Florida Association of Counties is hoping FEMA leaves the reimbursement process the way it is, said Cragin Mosteller, the association's director of external affairs.
"This would just create another level of bureaucracy," Mosteller said.
Taxpayers could wind up paying for hurricane shelters twice — once when the district opens them and again when the county has to pay the school district, she said.
"I think our counties have a right to be concerned," she said. "Let's not solve a problem that simply doesn't exist."
With hurricane season two months away, concerned counties are looking for help. Indian River County commissioners, for example, decided Tuesday to seek assistance from Gov. Rick Scott.
"This change in reimbursement creates a tremendous financial burden on county governments and school districts statewide," said the letter, signed by commission Chairman Peter O'Bryan.
Indian River could be the only Treasure Coast district affected. Martin and St. Lucie school districts each signed contracts with their respective counties last year, just before the 2017 hurricane season, to operate and staff the emergency shelters,
"We've already (received) our money back," said Julie Sessa, risk and benefits coordinator for Martin County School District. The county paid the district $79,067 for running the shelters during Hurricane Irma, records show. Having a contract with the county to operate shelters makes sense, she said.
"The county is charged with running the shelters to begin with," she said.
In St. Lucie County, the county paid the school district $19.3 million to operate Hurricane Irma shelters.