Debbie Wasserman Schultz argued Wednesday that Gov. Rick Scott is slowing Hurricane Irma debris cleanup by forcing certain municipalities to follow debris removal contracts negotiated before the storm.
The longtime congresswoman from Broward County and the governor engaged in a testy exchange over hurricane debris removal during a meeting between the governor and the entire Florida congressional delegation on Wednesday.
“Debris has become an emergency situation, a public health hazard, rot is setting in,” Wasserman Schulz said. “If we start getting another hurricane, all this debris will become projectiles.”
Wasserman Schultz said that the debris removal companies are able to get more money from municipalities who didn’t pre-negotiate a contract because the demand for debris removal is so high around the state. Therefore, certain communities are prioritized for debris removal over others because they can pay more.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses municipalities for the bulk of hurricane debris removal, while the state picks up about 10 percent of the cost.
Scott countered that his biggest priority is making sure that debris removal companies aren’t price-gouging certain municipalities, and that allowing certain towns and cities to be reimbursed for a higher debris removal rate will ultimately hurt taxpayers.
“I’m going to stand to try to make sure that we watch out for taxpayer money,” Scott said. “They have contracts, comply with the contracts. I’m not going to allow people to take advantage of our state.”
Scott said the state is doing “everything we can” to expedite debris removal, citing the National Guard’s presence in the Florida Keys.
Wasserman Schultz continued to press Scott in a public forum with most of the state’s congressional delegation and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam looking on. She said that Scott did not return seven emails and several calls from her over the past week regarding debris cleanup.
“I have tried to reach you and I have gotten no response from you,” Wasserman Schultz said.
“If you contacted me, I don’t have any evidence that you contacted me,” Scott replied.
The meeting’s moderator, Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, who was physically seated between Scott and Wasserman Schultz, eventually stopped the exchange as Wasserman Schultz continued to criticize Scott.
“Let’s talk about that a little later,” Buchanan said.
The exchange between Wasserman Schultz and Scott went largely unaddressed by other members from both parties until Republican Rep. Bill Posey spoke up in agreement with Wasserman Schultz.
“I do have some issues that Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz mentioned with debris pickup,” Posey said to Scott. “I’ll get with you on that.”
Wasserman Schultz cited the city of Hollyood as an example of slower-than-expected debris cleanup. She said only 92,000 of the city’s 350,000 cubic yards of debris has been removed more than a month after Irma made landfall in Florida.
“We can and should go after price gougers, but for him to resolutely cross his arms and sit there and stand in the way of debris being removed in the name of the price being too high is dangerous and irresponsible,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We have cities that have not been able to get their debris hauled away with their pre-negotiated rate or for the $8 or $9 dollar average that [Scott] says he’ll approve.”
Other members largely praised Scott and Putnam’s response to the storm during the hourlong meeting, while Putnam used a rare trip to Washington to push for an additional $2.5 billion in relief funding for Florida’s agricultural industry. The House is expected to pass an additional hurricane funding bill this week, and Putnam wants Florida to push for that money in this week’s package.
“For all of the issues that everyone is dealing with ... the one area that historically doesn’t have sort of a standing program of assistance is disaster assistance for agriculture for the things that we grow in Florida,” Putnam said.
While Wasserman Schultz publicly criticized Scott’s lack of communication in recent weeks, Republican members of the delegation said the governor was easy to reach.
“I want to thank you all for being so accessible, not only to all of us but to our communities,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
“I appreciate the returned phone calls,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville.
Yoho’s comment elicited an eye roll from Wasserman Schultz.