With Florida facing a multibillion-dollar reduction in the coming state budget, it is imprudent to reject federal assistance for a planned regional hurricane shelter that would serve western Pasco and Hernando counties. But that is the scenario unfolding in Tallahassee where Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is seeking an additional $1.1-million in state money to allow Florida emergency managers to skirt federal rules governing wind load capacities for new shelters.
The senator's strategy comes at an inopportune time considering he and his colleagues must cut $500-million to balance the current state budget and are looking to write a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that is $2.5-billion smaller still.
Fasano, whose Senate district includes about half of Hernando County, proposed the maneuver because the federal government wants shelters built to withstand 200-mph winds. The regional shelter, planned for Arthur Engle Memorial Park on Denton Avenue in Hudson, had been designed to withstand winds of up to 160 mph.
The difference comes because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) raised its standard last year, but included no new money to pay for changes. The shelter in Hudson has been in the works for more than two years and is intended to double as a health-care clinic for the needy.
The FEMA rule amounts to an unfunded mandate that local governments find so frustrating. The change could add an estimated $4-million to the design and construction of the shelter that had been budgeted at $7.6-million.
The state plans to ask for a waiver of the new federal rule and also is seeking assistance from the Florida congressional delegation if FEMA declines. That is the appropriate action. Fasano, however, wants to reject the current FEMA money allocated to the project and replace it with state dollars. That $1.1-million switch would allow the shelter construction to go on as planned, minus the requirement to withstand 200-mph winds.
The senator's impatience is understandable. The regional shelter is intended to be a safe haven for up to 1,000 people in Pasco and Hernando counties during severe weather. Pasco is short more than 20,000 shelter spaces for what would be needed in a Category 4 or 5 storm, and Hernando is 6,300 short of the 14,000 spaces it would need.
Original projections called for shelter construction to be complete by May 2009, but there have been hiccups along the way. The original site was actually in a hurricane evacuation zone; an architect estimated the construction price at $10.5-million; and the state had to come up with additional money to help finance the health clinic within the shelter.
Regardless of the setbacks, rejecting the federal aid in anticipation of the availability of more state dollars should not be attempted. Fasano, as chairman of the Senate committee overseeing state spending on transportation, has the opportunity to finagle additional dollars intended for other purposes. He should resist the temptation and await the federal waiver.