FEMA “Clawbacks,” School News, and Delray’s City Manager Search

A tree torn out of the earth by Hurricane Irma. (Photo by David Shuff)

Boca Raton may lose nearly $5 million in Hurricane Irma reimbursement because the state won’t fight for the city against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

According to a city spokeswoman, Boca Raton submitted $8.4 million in reimbursement costs to FEMA, mostly for debris removal and public safety overtime. Once FEMA reviews such requests and approves the reimbursement, the money goes to the state, which releases the money to cities and counties.

Apparently, FEMA has approved the Irma money. But the agency also wants Boca Raton to return $4.69 million—in what’s known as a “clawback”—from what agency officials now claim were expenses for the 2005 storm that should have been disallowed. The city disagrees.

So the state, the spokeswoman said, intends to withhold that $4.69 million for Wilma from the $8.4 million for Irma. Thus the nearly $5 million loss.

The reimbursement system is very complex and includes untold regulations. Residents may recall after Irma how one contractor followed the debris pickup contractor, to make sure that the pickup included only items for which FEMA allows reimbursement.

The spokeswoman said the Wilma dispute is over the collection of tree stumps versus branches. Boca Raton officials say that FEMA told the city that it should use a certain collection system, but then reneged.

It’s hardly unprecedented in Florida for FEMA to demand money many years later. The agency wants $1.1 million from DeSoto County, east of Sarasota, from Hurricane Charley in 2004. That property-poor county of about 200,000 might have to take out a loan.

Local governments also are familiar with FEMA’s ever-changing rules. Lake County, northwest of Orlando, wants $7.8 million from Irma. After a recent trip to Washington to lobby FEMA, the county manager complained, “The goalposts keep moving.”

Boca Raton is a property-rich city with ample reserves and could withstand the denial of that $4.6 million. But comparative affluence with other cities and counties is beside the point. Boca Raton believes that the city has a legitimate complaint, and the state won’t help.

The city could ask someone to intercede. State Rep. Mike Caruso represents Boca Raton. In an email Monday, Caruso’s aide said, “The city has not called the office about it, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t reached out to (Caruso) directly.” The spokeswoman wasn’t sure about any requests for assistance. I emailed Mayor Scott Singer, who is on vacation. I’ll have a follow up as events warrant.

More on FEMA’s review      

FEMA’s review of Delray Beach’s Irma expenses also is going slowly.

According to a city spokeswoman, Delray Beach submitted roughly $7.6 million for reimbursement. Roughly $5.2 million is under review. FEMA has yet to review another $2.3 million submission.

Ah, but FEMA has approved one reimbursement submission—for about $8,000.

These examples indicate why city managers in South Florida regularly resist efforts by elected officials to cut taxes by raiding reserves. Storm expenses can drain reserve funds, and no one knows when that money will come back—if it comes back at all.

FEMA itself a little shaky

Coincidentally or not, these disputes over hurricane reimbursement come amid uncertainty within FEMA.

Administrator Brock Long resigned in February, claiming that he wanted to spend more time with his family. The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, however, had found that Long improperly used government vehicles and resources for travel between Washington and his home in North Carolina.

Long also had drawn criticism for FEMA’s slow response to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. President Donald Trump has not nominated a permanent replacement for Long. So FEMA, like much of the administration, is under temporary leadership. Peter Gaynor is acting administrator. Daniel Kaniewski is acting deputy administrator.

In addition, the Senate has not confirmed Trump’s choice to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees hurricane forecasts. There was bipartisan concern over Barry Myers’ potential conflicts of interest involving his company, AccuWeather. Critics said Myers wanted to privatize forecasting.

When he represented Palm Beach County in Congress, Mark Foley suggested removing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security. Foley said having FEMA in such a massive department made the agency slow to respond. Many local officials in Florida would agree on the need for changes to FEMA.

Pulling our grades up (or down)

Since we’re on the subject of damaging weather, Boca Raton residents soon may get good news.

In a letter last week, the New Jersey-based Insurance Services Office said the city likely had raised its Community Ratings Systems grade from Class 8 to Class 7. As in golf, lower is better on this scale, which rates cities on their resiliency to flooding. It’s much like the system that rates fire prevention.

Assuming the Federal Emergency Management Agency approves the recommendation, property owners would pay less for flood insurance. Just by entering the program, a city got residents a 5 percent discount. Each level of improvement brings another five percent discount. Boca Raton’s latest would take effect next May.

According to FEMA, most communities that enter the program start out at Class 9 or 8. As of 2017, only one community had achieved a grade of 1—the highest level—and only a few had improved to 2.

Keith Carney, the city’s floodplain manager, gave a PowerPoint presentation to the city council almost a year ago. Carney outlined how the staff would try to improve Boca Raton’s rating. About 20 categories go into the rating, ranging from the quality of elevation maps to outreach about keeping neighborhood drains clear.

Assuming this new rating takes effect in nine months, Boca Raton must apply for recertification each year. The next review—when the city could seek a higher rating—is scheduled for 2023.

Candidates in next year’s elections may not run on this issue, but it represents local government at its best. Boca Raton took a good idea and made something happen that will be good for the city and every property owner.

New municipal services director

Boca Raton finally has a permanent municipal services director.

It’s one of the city’s most important positions. The director is in charge of sanitation, traffic, streets and sidewalks, public works projects, coastal management and stormwater. (See previous item.)

To fill the position, the city promoted from within, promoting Zachary Bihr. He had been assistant city engineer. Bihr came to Boca Raton in 2013 and worked first as a staff engineer.

 Dan Grippo, the former director, announced his departure in January. Grippo spent the next four months, however, helping the department while Robert DiChristopher came out of retirement to be the acting director. Bihr takes over immediately.

Cops go back to school, too

half days

Monday was the first day of the year for public schools in Palm Beach County. Though the school district still plans to hire enough police officers to have at least one of its own on every campus, members of the Boca Raton and Delray Beach departments remain on the job.

In Boca Raton, city officers patrol four of the city’s five elementary schools. In Delray Beach, the city still covers the four elementary schools and Atlantic High. The school district reimburses the cities at a negotiated rate.

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, the Legislature required a public safety officer or so-called “armed guardian” at every school, including charters. The Palm Beach County School Board voted against arming teachers and staff members.

Elementary school update

The temporary school campus for students at Verde and Addison Mizner (Photo by Randy Schultz)

Speaking of schools, I wrote last week about the construction schedule for two rebuilt and one new elementary school in Boca Raton. Here’s an update.

I said the new Verde Elementary/Middle would be one story. The main classroom building will be two stories. Calusa Elementary will get six concrete portable classrooms from the old Verde, not four, and Spanish River High School will get 13 of those classrooms.

I also noted that expansion at Spanish River could relieve crowding at Boca Raton High. School board member Frank Barbieri, whose district includes the city, wanted me to emphasize that “there are no current plans” to change Boca High’s boundary” if efforts “to find boundary jumpers at Boca High” continue to be successful.

Delray City manager update

Michael Cernech, George Gretsas and Michael Napoli

There’s been a development in Delray Beach’s search for a permanent city manager.

I heard Monday from two reliable sources that City Commissioner Shirley Johnson has been interviewing candidates who are not among the three finalists scheduled for interviews next week with the commission. I’m told that Johnson asked for all 48 applications.

A city spokeswoman confirmed that Johnson had “requested and received information for all the applicants.” She added, “There was no consensus from the commissioners as to adding any other applicants to the interview progress. At this time, no one else has been added to the interviews set for next week.”

In a text message, Commissioner Bill Bathurst said, “I was informed that one other candidate was requested to be put into the interview process.” Bathurst said he informed the recruiting firm “that I wanted to stick with the current process as planned, and if none of those people worked out, I would consider others on the list.”

I’ll have an update Thursday, along with profiles of the current three candidates.

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