Gov. Rick Scott’s disaster management agency repeatedly violated federal requirements to expeditiously reimburse cities and counties in Florida for the cost of storm damage, agency auditors discovered in routine reviews.
The inspector general in the Division of Emergency Management cited "preventable delays" in paying cities, counties, school districts, hospitals and even state agencies for the cost of recovery from past floods, tornadoes and hurricanes.
The state’s slow pace will likely become a bigger issue because reimbursement costs will be higher from Hurricane Irma, the Category 4 storm that caused widespread death and destruction starting Sept. 10 in the Keys and along much of Florida’s southwest coast.
The inspector general’s annual report, dated Sept. 21, said the agency was violating federal law requiring timely payments on small and large projects after including a review of 33 earlier recovery requests. Payment delays were criticized 15 months earlier in a previous audit.
The latest report urged DEM’s bureaus of finance and recovery to come up with procedures to ensure payments within 30 days.
Under Scott’s direct control, the Division of Emergency Management is responsible for helping Floridians prepare for natural disasters.
Less well-known to the public is the agency’s other duty, to process the multitude of requests for reimbursement for the costs of recovering from disasters.
Wes Maul, Scott’s acting director of the agency who has been in the job for less than a month, says improvements are coming.
"Division staff are laser-focused on getting Florida’s communities the funds they are due as expeditiously as possible," said an agency spokesman, Alberto Moscoso, said this week.
Yet despite the assurances, reimbursements lag, especially in financially struggling rural communities with little ability to raise revenue.
Most of the reimbursement money comes from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But before the payments are delivered throughout Florida, the state reviews every request and documents the expenses.
The inspector general’s latest findings come as hundreds of local governments and even some state agencies are still waiting for checks to arrive from the state for the costs of police overtime, emergency shelters, road and bridge repair and other protective measures from back-to-back hurricanes Hermine and Matthew last year.
According to state records through Tuesday, the state owes Pinellas County about $1.7 million from Hermine, which hammered the state in September of last year.
Pasco is still owed about $725,000 from that storm.
Matthew, which hit the east coast more than a month later, has left a much longer trail of unpaid recovery costs.
They include nearly $2 million in Broward County, more than $6 million in Palm Beach County and an estimated $25 million for Jacksonville.
Of the $136 million that’s been approved for reimbursements to localities, only about half, $69 million, has been reimbursed. An additional $235 million is still being reviewed by FEMA.
In recent days, more money has begun to shake loose.
In Bunnell on northeast Florida’s coast, Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey finally got word this week that the county will soon be reimbursed about $450,000 for six separate Matthew cleanup projects.
"I’ll believe it when I see the money," Coffey said. "But at least now we have their attention."
The September report was not the first time DEM’s troubleshooters flagged payment problems.
In a report in June of last year, auditors said the agency "did not consistently comply with state and federal regulations for payments" to recipients.
DEM did not challenge any of the findings and said that, "due to staff turnover and vacancies, the payments processed during this audit period were not all able to be submitted in a timely manner."
In response to questions, DEM provided the Times/Herald a two-page agency reorganization plan begun under former agency director Bryan Koon, who left on Oct. 1 for a new job in the private sector.
Koon’s April 25 memo said in part: "We made a number of moves that will allow us to provide better customer service."
Koon’s interim replacement, Maul, told legislators this week that more improvements are needed at DEM.
Maul was chief of staff at DEM before he took over on an acting basis on Oct. 1. He told the Senate Appropriations Committee that his staff is prepared to take on the job of reviewing Irma’s claims, even while still paying bills for Matthew and Hermine.
Citing the payment delays from Matthew and Hermine, Maul told lawmakers, the state is working more closely with FEMA on an "expedited process" that will result in paying Irma’s claims more quickly.
Reading from a prepared text, Maul told senators: "While the division continues to work diligently on assisting communities with their Hermine and Matthew reimbursements, we certainly stand ready to begin processing Irma projects."