The Baldwin County Commission met with some of the county’s 14 mayors and city staff last week to hear their experiences in seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for expenses incurred due to Hurricane Sally. In a roundtable discussion, it was revealed about $140 million in expenses have been submitted for reimbursement, but FEMA has cut checks totaling less than $100,000.
“I was told in November there may be cash coming in January but here we are in April and our application has not moved forward,” Fairhope Treasurer Kim Creech said. The city has about $10 million in outstanding expenses since the storm and Creech joined Mayor Sherry Sullivan to tell the commission FEMA keeps moving the goalposts. Apparently, the city was awarded a benefit for participating in a pilot program, but the agency later rescinded the award and recategorized the city’s work.
Many municipalities have dipped into their cash reserves or drawn lines of credit to pay for hurricane cleanup, and Baldwin County Budget Director Ron Cink said the interest that is accruing on those accounts is not reimbursable.
“We’re having to come out of pocket with these expenses, so any significant delay by the federal government is challenging,” he said.
Bay Minette Mayor Bob Wills said his city is owed about $2 million and FEMA has been so nitpicky about expenses they requested a $56 reimbursement be moved from one category to another. Foley Mayor Ralph Hellmich said his city is owed about $13 million and so far, “we haven’t seen a dime.”
“They are changing the rules for reimbursement six months in,” he said. “It’s very concerning to me because these people are supposed to help us get back on our feet but here we are entering hurricane season again and our reserves are depleted.”
Some of the officials suspected there could be a political motive at play.
County Commissioner Jeb Ball pointed a finger at Montgomery and Washington, D.C., and implied “we’re being punished because of us being a [Republican] state.” Regardless, Ball said Gov. Kay Ivey should be in front of the cameras daily demanding swift reimbursement.
“We’ve got to find a way to get to Washington,” he said. “Our lobbyists are currently being vetted by the Democrats, and if they had anything to do with Trump, they are being cast aside. Nancy Pelosi is running the show and right now, they don’t even care.”
But Tayna Shannon, a senior managing associate with Hagerty Consulting, an independent agency that helps clients prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters, said Panama City, Fla., had to wait six to nine months after Hurricane Michael to receive reimbursement, and FEMA may simply be overwhelmed with applications from communities nationwide that were affected by natural disasters in 2020.
“It’s interesting to see the difference in where the problems are, but it’s my understanding the Biden administration is encouraging FEMA to be friendlier,” Shannon said, noting the Trump administration also advised to relax some reimbursement restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. “They currently don’t have an administrator.”
Shannon suggested congressional support may carry more weight than the governor’s office can, and municipalities may be able to apply for expedited partial reimbursements, rather than the full amount owed.
Commissioner Joe Davis said he was willing to fight for it.
“If it’s going to take three years for Mexico City [Florida] to get theirs, we need to put our three-year bootstraps on,” he said. “You can bet the reddest county in the reddest state is a target, but we know how to play hardball. We have to put together a strategy to move forward consistently and as long as it takes.”
This page is available to our local subscribers. Click here to join us today and get the latest local news from local reporters written for local readers. The best deal is found by clicking here. Check it out now.