Bay County, Fla., Expects $80M Bill After FEMA Reimbursements

Currently, the $80 million would cover the county's portion of the $661 million total cost for hurricane damage in the county. It's such a large sum that county officials are looking at all options to pay it, from raising taxes to cutting services.

by Patrick Mccreless, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. / April 18, 2019

(TNS) — Bay County expects an $80 million bill for Hurricane Michael recovery spending even if all expected federal disaster money is paid, officials said Tuesday.

Currently, the $80 million would cover the county's portion of the $661 million total cost for hurricane damage in the county. It's such a large sum that county officials are looking at all options to pay it, from raising taxes to cutting services.

"It's not a foregone conclusion that there will be a tax increase or fees raised," County Manager Bob Majka said. "But we want the public to know that it's something we're going to look at."

The County Commission learned details about recovery spending during its regular meeting on Tuesday. The details were part of a larger report on the county's recovery six months since the storm.

The $661 million is the latest total damage estimate the county has submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is expected to reimburse 75 percent of that cost, leaving the other 25 percent to be split evenly between the state and county. The county's 12.5 percent share equates to $80 million, Majka said.

The $80 million will sting particularly hard since money for it would have to come from the county's general fund, which represents 24 percent of its annual budget. Much of the county's annual $362 million budget is paid for with money earmarked for specific purposes.

"We can't take money from the gas tax to fix this problem," Majka said.

As such, the county is exploring all options to cover the cost, including raising taxes and cutting employees and services.

"It's everything from attrition to having a talk with the commission on what it wants its priorities to be," Majka said.

The general fund pays for a variety of services, from the sheriff's office and county jail to the parks and recreation department and the public library.

Majka noted that the $80 million won't include everything the county will have to pay for hurricane recovery. To date, the commission has borrowed $250 million to cover recovery spending, mainly for debris removal. The county must pay for recovery projects and have receipts before FEMA will reimburse anything.

While FEMA will reimburse the county for the loans, it won't do the same for the interest on those loans, Majka said.

Majka said the county was looking at all methods to offset any budget reductions it might need to make.

"We're working with the state to make sure we explore everything available to us," he said.

Majka added that there is a chance the county's 12.5 percent share could be reduced to 5 percent. There's a provision that increases FEMA reimbursement for disasters to 90 percent if total damage reaches $2.7 billion. Majka said estimates currently are more than $1 billion.

"We're not there yet, but if we can get our $661 million obligated, that would be a big push," Majka said.

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©2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

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