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Quibbling over bill while debris piles up

North Suncoast counties have been through enough high winds lately that they shouldn't have to bend to rules that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is imposing about cleaning up debris from Frances.

Federal rules base the reimbursement of costs to collect downed trees and limbs on geography. Subjective interpretations of those rules need to be reviewed.

FEMA officials have informed county commissions in the Tampa Bay area, including those of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, that the agency will pay for 75 percent of fees charged by contracted waste haulers to pick up vegetative debris caused by Frances. The caveat is that FEMA won't pay for any rubble to be picked up from private property. That includes many gated communities _ from mansions to mobile home parks _ where residents had been instructed to place it on the curb.

The difference means the state and local governments could incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. Most county commissions will be forced to dip into emergency reserves to foot the balance of the bills FEMA does not.

The sticking point seems to be the severity of the storm. When Hurricane Charley came ashore in the Punta Gorda area and ripped a path up the center of the state, FEMA declared the disaster so awful that it did not impose its rules about picking up debris on private property. The priority was _ rightly so _ to fully fund and clear the way for residents to begin rebuilding their lives.

Because Frances was a tropical storm when it hit this area, the substantial damage it caused was deemed ineligible for such consideration. Each storm and damage assessment is handled on a case-by-case basis.

Cleanups should be accomplished as soon as possible. Local emergency management officials should not delay as they await word from FEMA about what costs are covered. When other storms threaten, it is important to ensure that debris from the prior storm does not become a heap of life-threatening projectiles.

Counties should begin the cleanup and worry later about who will pay for it. Where the rubble lies is less important than its prompt removal.

Admittedly, FEMA's resources are stretched thin during such a relentless hurricane season. Setting priorities is an unpleasant and necessary task.

But all residents, whether they live in a gated community or on public roads, pay federal taxes and need _ and deserve _ financial assistance to cover the costs that ensure public safety.

Pasco County has waived tipping fees for the private haulers. That's one way to cut costs. But absorbing that expense puts only a dent in the overall subsidy county governments assume for the cleanup under FEMA's rules.

The commissions in counties where this inequity exists should appeal FEMA's policy and lobby their congressional representatives for it to be changed. Damage is damage, regardless of the velocity of the winds or rain that caused it, or who owns the land where the debris is strewn.