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.
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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.”