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$460,000 And Counting: With Federal Aid Unlikely, Flagler Will Bear Fires’ Entire Costs

| June 28, 2011

Flagler's chances to recoup money spent fighting wildfires went up in smoke when Gov. Rick Scott refused to ask for a federal emergency declaration. (© FlaglerLive)

When disasters strike, governors can and do call on the federal government to declare portions of their state a federal disaster area, as Florida governors have in the past when wildfires and hurricanes have hit.

“In past fires we had been declared much earlier,” County Administrator Craig Coffey, even on fires that cost the county less than the 2011 wildfires have, as did the airport fire of 2007.

Not this time. Gov. Rick Scott declared a statewide emergency, which mobilized some state resources such as the National Guard (who sent Black Hawk helicopters to Flagler to help fight the fires). But Scott has so far refused to ask for a federal emergency declaration. That will have one direct consequence on local taxpayers: they’ll have to bear the entire cost of the wildfires on their own. No state aid, no federal aid.

So far, the fires have cost the county $460,000, including $292,000 on personnel, and $171,000 on out-of-pocket expenses, including meals furnished to firefighters on the firelines or on fire duty.

“This does not account for any normal FEMA reimbursements as far as equipment charges,” Coffey said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Administration. “We’d easily be almost double this amount. This does not account for Division of Forestry assets or the assets of Bunnell, Flagler Beach or Palm Coast. If you added all those, you’d probably be closer to about $1.5 million to date.”

The county had budgeted a $300,000 disaster fund, which will cover the lion share of the expenses. That emergency fund will be replenished, since the county can’t afford to face another emergency without it. (If the budgeted disaster fund is not used in any given year, it can roll over to the following year, freeing up other dollars. Not this time.) The rest will come from various contingency funds. The county also has about 9 percent of its $60 million general revenue fund in reserves, but depleting that would be financially risky: four years ago it was down to less than $1 million. Commissioners made a point of building it back up. They have used the reserves in recent years to minimize the effects of tax rate increases.

This year’s budget season is again challenging the commission to make up a loss of $5.5 million in revenue from a 13.5 percent drop in property valuations. That’s a substantial hit on the $68 million general fund. Coffey said the cost of the fires “shouldn’t affect the direction we’re going” in terms of meeting the year’s budget goals. The budget is shrinking, though by how much won’t be clear until the end of budget season. And chances are that the tax rate will again go up. For a third year in a row, county employees, including firefighters, will have no raises. The county will make about $1 million in cuts, and will realize about a $500,000 windfall from 3 percent in state retirement contributions each employee must now make, instead of the local government. That 3 percent amounts to an equivalent cut in take-home pay. Employees’ pay is dented further by higher health insurance costs.

Coffey had proposed making up the 3 percent loss for the employees through local funds, but county commissioners were not interested. The idea was dropped. It would have cost the county about half a million dollars this year—about what it will cost the county to pay for the fire emergency. Had Scott requested the federal declaration, most of that money would have been reimbursed.

“Can we afford it?” County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson said about the $460,000 fire expense. “Well, I’d rather spend it on something else than fire, if there was grant money available.” Now, he added, “it means we can’t use it for some other purpose, or to lower the tax rate. We had a reserve and now we’re going to have to start to replace it.”

FEMA’s Fire Management Assistance Grant Program (FMAGP) is available to Scott. It’s separate from an emergency declaration under FEMA. But it provides substantial financial relief to governments. (A federal emergency declaration goes further, enabling property and business owners to make reimbursement claims.) Had Florida secured FMAGP for Flagler County, 75 percent of Flagler County’s (and cities’) costs would have been reimbursed. The state would have reimbursed an additional 12.5 percent. And Flagler County’s local match would have been 12.5 percent. Florida’s emergency management division could have requested the grant “while the fire is burning out of control and threatens to become a major disaster,” according to the division. That was the case earlier this month on the Espanola fire and a few other fires around the state.

“At that time, that day, while that declaration was being worked through the system, it rained on the fire,” Bill Korn, a Division of Forestry liaison officer now assigned to the Espanola and Flagler fires, said. “In the best intentions, the best conditions that would warrant such a declaration, often times are mitigated through acts of nature, in this case some rainfall.”

That opportunity has likely passed.

The division did submit grant requests for five other fires in the state (in Glades, Collier, Levy, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties). It was denied on four of those, but approved for the Slope fire in Collier County, for which it applied on April 27.

“Unfortunately the state of Florida at this time has not chosen to submit the FMAGP on our behalf or Volusia,” Coffey said. “When we had the airport fire in 2005, it was all consolidated and submitted. Now I don’t know if it’s reluctance on the part of the governor to seek that funding or provide that match, I don’t know what the issue is. I think until we lose structures and do a lot of evacuations, too, we’ll have some trouble at the federal level qualifying.”

William Booher, the director of external affairs for the Florida Duivision of Emergency Management, put it this way, referring to Flagler’s case: “It did no rise to the level of what would be approved by FEMA.”

That’s the irony of the 2011 fires: the county, the cities and the Division of Forestry combated the fires so effectively—and expensively—that they prevented the disaster from demolishing more than woods. No homes were destroyed, though two DOF fire fighters were killed. But politics, too, is likely playing a role. Scott is frequently critical of the Obama administration. He’s repeatedly rejected federal funds (but not all funds). He doesn’t want to be seen reaching out for federal aid. And he’s not interested in improving Obama’s 2012 chances in Florida by enabling the benevolence of federal aid.

State officials whose own departments have been slashed are not about to question the governor’s motives. So they fall back on technical requirements of emergency declarations.

“Declarations are based on threat to life and property, not on threat to trees or putting smoke on the highway,” Korn said. “Once you’ve got the declaration you’re good for a while, but to get that declaration there has to be a major threat to life and property, and that has to be very descriptive, it has to be very clear and immediate.”

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14 Responses for “$460,000 And Counting: With Federal Aid Unlikely, Flagler Will Bear Fires’ Entire Costs”

  1. Mario says:

    I want this worthless piece of garbage impeached.

  2. Rob says:

    The airport road fire was in 2007 not 2005.

  3. Ol' Sarge says:

    Well, I hope the omnibenevolent, omniscient tea party is proud…so much for not paying more taxes!! Your short-sidedness and lack of vision has cost EVERYONE!!! As someone personally affected, I would like to thank you for compromising the safety and well being of the public servants who provide your safety by voting in the most partisan oriented imbecile to ever hold office in the state of Florida. Track record: no sun rail, attacks on public service, and a wait and see philosophy that is costing ALL of us…great job!

  4. Sam Gorbaello says:

    Instead of always trying to STEAL money from the goverment, what you say we put a dollar tax on a six pack of beer, bottle of wine, and pint of liquor. We would have that money in no time with all the alcoholics in this city.

  5. Joe says:

    This is a drop in the bucket compared to the wasted tax dollars over the past several years. Walmart’s 3 mill road improvement, The Ginn hangar at the airport, the PCD debacle, the Pellcier Creek land buy, Enterprise Flagler, and the list goes on and on. Nice try, it would be nice to see an article totaling up all of the wasted tax money over the past 5 years. I do think the Govenor should file the FMAGP, but our county and city officials need to be held accountable for their waste as well.

  6. Yogi says:

    We should pay for the fires, they are our fires. Federal money isn’t free and should be held for a real disaster.

    Where was all the controlled burning this year? This would have mitigated much cost and risk by the reduction in fuel. Bad local management on the preparation. Yet, we saw no shortage of resources to fight the fires.

    No one is stopping those who want big government solutions from sending in your donations. Let er fly!

  7. DP says:

    WE can’t blame all of it on Rick Scott, and by no means am I defending this waste of air. What about all those people who voted for him, Flagler was one of the grounds where he won the vote. I can PROUDLEY say I “DIDIN’T” vote for him. So I say thank you voters, you believed in a fool and now it will cost all of us more with another tax increase in an already stressed economy and home budgets.

  8. Bigfoot says:

    We wil all see the results of the ‘ let Feds give us the money’ in about 3 yrs. Hope all can stand the pain then.

  9. Mike says:

    As if I needed more proof on how inept our “governor” is. Those of you who voted in this POS MUST feel dumb right about now. I’m so glad he had our backs by “monitoring” the fires. That had to be rough work for him.

    Let’s get to work! Woot!

  10. Ol' Sarge says:

    Controlled burning was done as scheduled all year, so I am not quite sure what you are talking about. As far as waiting for a disaster, I would say higher heat index and drier climate than 98, mandatory 36 hour shifts, and 6-7000 acres actively burning warrants a disaster…better yet, next time, we can wait until structures and lives are lost before acting…again, reaction instead of action is NOT the answer!

  11. Binkey says:


    Well said.

  12. dave says:

    I think our good county was trying to milk our good goverment and it back fired on them, I seen way too many fire fighters sitting around on the side of the roads in espanola doing nothing at all, or hanging out under the oak tree’s at the espanola cemetery, Forestry did a great job after the slackers were sent packing, don’t take me wrong there were a few times when forestry needed the extra hands but i’m quiet sure there was no need for the 36 hour shifts, rick scott is a scum bag but he is also a wise scum bag, its hard to tell the worse of the 2 evils at time.

  13. The mondexian says:


    The firefighters you saw at the Espanola cemetery were not County Firefighters, You sound jealous you were not under those trees. The County firefighters were assigned to specific fires of which did not include the cemetery. Ask the folks in Seminole Woods if when fire swept up to their homes if they were not happy to have the 36 on and 36 off. It was the guys that were on 36 hours that saved their homes. You are spewing verbal diarrhea of which you have no knowledge to even bother to print on here. Go back under the rock you slithered from.

  14. dave says:


    Next time you feel the need to correct me please do your home work first, ! being as I stopped and talked with the flagler county fire fighters for about an hour, which by the way I knew 4 of them by first and last names, I wonder if engine 51 belongs to station 51 in Espanola ? well yes I do believe it does doesn’t it ! now lets talk about the 36 hour shifts , what does it matter if your working 24 like they always do or if you work your 24 hour shift and go home without the ( 12 hours ) over time pay, ooh fire departments only work 24 hour shifts then they close down, no wait that cannot be because the next shift starts for the next 24 hour crew, so you see as long as everyone is doing their jobs there was no need for the 36 hour shifts, I sure hope this has educated you somewhat, as for the Seminole woods fire palm coast and fire flight did a great job like always. : )

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