On the job for three weeks, Gov. Rick Scott’s interim state disaster chief told lawmakers Wednesday he sees “significant opportunity for improvement” in how Florida repays cities and counties for recovery costs for past hurricanes.
As Scott visited Chicago on his latest job-poaching mission, his administration’s handling of the post-Irma recovery came under scrutiny in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“There's still a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to continuing to solve these problems,” disaster chief Wes Maul told senators. “We are committed to ensuring that the state does not stand between communities and their money.”
Maul, 29, took over the Division of Emergency Management on Oct. 1, three weeks after Hurricane Irma made its first of two Category 4 landfalls. Maul was chief of staff to his predecessor, Bryan Koon, a former Walmart executive who resigned Oct. 1.
Maul said he inherited “an antiquated system” that he has tried to make more “user-friendly.” He predicted that some communities will be reimbursed for the costs of last month’s Hurricane Irma before they are repaid for Matthew and Hermine, which belted Florida more than a year ago.
Maul escaped unscathed. His Senate debut was an exercise in damage control, as senators have been fielding complaints from local officials about the extraordinarily long delays in reimbursement.
Maul told senators that state officials project a total of $700 million in reimbursements from Matthew and Hermine.
More than a year after those hurricanes, Maul testified, $371 million in projects is in the state’s payment system. Of that amount, the state has paid $67 million and another $136 million in costs are “obligated” but not yet paid.
Maul gave lawmakers a long spreadsheet showing the current status of reimbursement requests from counties, cities, school districts, hospitals, housing authorities, utilities and state agencies.
Also briefly on the hot seat was Scott transportation chief Mike Dew, who was grilled on DOT’s no-bid emergency contract for debris removal in the Florida Keys that has drawn critical attention.
DOT officials limited bid proposals to six firms already under contract. Senators glossed lightly over the report by CBS4 in Miami that asserted DOT’s action dramatically raised debris removal costs in Monroe County.
“The rates are higher on an emergency contract,” Dew testified.
Under questioning from the panel’s chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, Dew said the county asked for help with debris removal. Latvala asked Dew to show proof that such a request was made, as well as a list of what the DOT pays for a variety of materials and services.
“I will get you our price items,” Dew told senators.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who represents 11 North Florida counties, asked Maul why so many payment requests are listed as “unrequested” a year later.
Maul replied that the state has not yet received invoices and receipts for actual work completed. He said “discrepancies in supporting documents” is one reason why payment delays occur.
State officials estimate recovery costs from Irma at about $650 million, and that all but about $50 million will be reimbursed by the federal government.
Scott’s budget director, Cynthia Kelly, said the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a higher-than-usual federal reimbursement rate that she said will reduce the impact on the state budget over a period of years.
Latvala said Scott needs to consult more directly with the Legislature before “unilaterally” making spending decisions such as ordering state-run disaster recovery centers in Miami and Orlando.
In an emotional plea, Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, urged senators to increase state aid to county school districts, hospitals and clinics to absorb the influx of Puerto Rican evacuees from Hurricane Maria. He also said the state needs to make affordable housing a higher priority.
Bursting into tears, Torres urged the state to act with urgency “as if it was your family members who were suffering.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.