(TNS) - What's it going to take for the state to pay the disaster-relief money it should have dispersed to city and county governments months ago for cleanup from Hurricane Matthew?
That's right, Matthew. October 2016. A massive storm that did massive damage, despite the last-hour "wobble" that kept the eye just off-coast. Some residents were holed up behind towering piles of debris for weeks as cities scrambled (and sometimes bid against each other) to bring in garbage trucks, mulchers and other implements of mass tidying. We say this to remind everyone of what life was like, way back 18 months ago.
Another date to keep in mind: Sept. 21. That's when the state Division of Emergency Management released a report from its own Inspector General, finding "preventable delays" in paying out federal emergency-management dollars to the cities and counties waiting on reimbursement from Matthew and Hurricane Hermine, which hit the Panhandle in September 2016. (That's the insult added to injury: Most of this isn't even state money. It's federal, and the state is just a pass-through.) The audit didn't get a lot of notice because it came out a few weeks after another major hurricane — Irma — struck Florida, doubling the strain on local budgets and the burden of even more paperwork.
And still the state seems to be hunting for its checkbook. Across Volusia and Flagler counties, the state owes 16 local government entities about $27 million from Matthew, The News-Journal's T.S. Jarmusz reported. Some cities — including Deltona, Port Orange, Palm Coast and tiny Pierson — have received less than 1 percent of the amount due.
That's money local government leaders need for other priorities. Many raided trust funds or dipped into reserves. It made it harder to cope when, 11 months later, Hurricane Irma buzz-sawed up the East Coast.
The Sept. 21 audit is worth a look (https://tinyurl.com/FEMSAudit) because it describes in the driest possible terms an agency seemingly unprepared to handle the finances of a big-deal storm. Just one example: The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires local governments to document expenses on a standard form that accompanies requests for reimbursement. Yet the state didn't require its "subgrantees" to use that form. As a result, many cities and counties made up their own formats — which in turn made it tough to evaluate the requests for reimbursement. It's a mindboggling tangle of bureaucracy, especially in a state where hurricanes are a well-known hazard.
Granted, before Hermine and Matthew struck in 2016, Florida enjoyed a long stretch of relatively quiet weather. But the state Division of Emergency Management's various bureaus have one job: Get ready for "the big one" — be it flood, fire or storm — and deal with the inevitable aftermath. That includes the boring but necessary paperwork.
State officials promise they're going to do better. In September, a Division of Emergency Management spokesman told the Miami Herald the agency was "laser focused" on getting communities reimbursed. And yet, so many across Florida are still waiting. For Matthew and Hermine money. In five weeks, a new hurricane season starts.
Which raises the biggest question: What about reimbursements for Irma, which did even more damage?
South Daytona City Manager Joe Yarbrough says his finance department hasn't even seen the initial paperwork from the state for those funds. "How can they be so responsive, and then drop the ball?" he asks. "If we get another one this year, good Lord. We're going to be strapped."
There's no excuse for putting local officials, and the constituents they serve, through this kind of anxiety. The state needs to get off the dime, and cough up the dollars.
©2018 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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