(TNS) - A likely change in federal reimbursement policy for local governments' disaster-related costs could impose a new financial burden on county governments.
Currently, school districts and county governments submit their costs associated with hurricanes or other natural disasters separately to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Manatee County School District — which opened 24 campuses as shelters prior to Hurricane Irma in September — submitted to FEMA documentation for more than $1 million just in labor costs. It has yet to be reimbursed and is still calculating other expenses associated with its feeding and housing more than 25,000 evacuees.
Yet FEMA has reportedly notified state emergency officials that it now wants school districts to submit their shelter-related costs to the county government to include with its reimbursement invoices.
In a joint meeting of Manatee County's School Board and County Commission on Wednesday, school and county administrators said they have yet to get any formal policy change in writing. Yet they expect the notification to be forthcoming.
"This is probably going to be a mandate we'll have to deal with," County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said.
School Board Chairman Scott Hopes said that getting reimbursement requests from school districts and counties causes confusion for FEMA and can delay reimbursements because the agency becomes unsure if it is getting billed twice for the same expense.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said that, if the School Board bills the county for its shelter expenses, the county would be expected to pay those costs and wait for FEMA's reimbursement.
"If FEMA denies any cost, it would be at the risk of the county," Hunzeker said.
Commissioner Betsy Benac said she understands if FEMA would prefer to deal with "one (countywide) entity collecting the bills."
By submitting invoices to the county instead, "you might expect payment quicker," Benac told school district officials. "... What are the implications for our budget?"
In a related discussion, school district leaders say they disagree with a recent finding by state emergency officials that the Tampa Bay region (Manatee, Hernando, Citrus, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties) now has a 15,000-space deficit in its hurricane shelters.
Deputy School Superintendent Ron Ciranna called the study "flawed" because it overlooked 15 schools in Manatee already designated as shelters. "Currently there is no deficit," Ciranna said.
Yet county commissioners said the school district needs to ensure future schools are "hardened" to create more shelter capacity — and not just for the county's growing population.
The state's count of regional shelter space does not take into account that, prior to a storm, Manatee becomes a destination for many Floridians evacuating from counties to the south, commissioners said.
"We are going to need more shelters," Benac said.
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