OUR POSITION: FEMA’s attempt to get Charlotte County to pay back more than $14 million in Hurricane Charley recovery funds is nothing more than a money grab.

It has all the trappings of an old west showdown and Charlotte County Budget Director Gordon Burger has his fast draw technique down pat.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is demanding Charlotte County repay more than $14 million in Hurricane Charley recovery funds. The agency says it paid too much and it wants its money back.

Hold on, Burger said.

“We have no intention of paying this,” Burger told Sun staff writer Betsy Calvert. “We can clearly document we were not (overpaid).”

FEMA, an agency that shoulders the burden for disaster relief all across the nation — from wildfires, to hurricanes to floods — has its hands full. We can understand the potential for confusion and even overpayment as the agency struggles to get people, and local governments, back on their feet. Bills are rapidly dumped on FEMA’s doorstep and checks are being written every minute. And, 2004 was certainly a busy time for FEMA with four hurricanes and two tropical storms hitting our state.

But, 15 years has been plenty of time to correct the problem. We agree with Burger and the county that it’s too late to be knocking on the door to get money back — if indeed the county actually owes the money.

Burger made a great argument for telling FEMA to go away. Among the points he made in the conversation with Calvert was:

• There was a time period scheduled between 2004 and 2007 when FEMA was supposed to go over the money it paid out and bills were scrutinized.

• By 2012 FEMA was suppose to have completed a review of all bills and payments and settled any discrepancies with the county.

• In 2017 Congress passed the Stafford Act that basically made it “clear (FEMA) cannot go back” and request money after a period of time. That legislation was modified in 2018 to make it even clearer that FEMA had a deadline of three years to clear up any disputes over payments made for disaster relief.

“(FEMA is) so big and powerful they’re just thumbing their nose at people,” Burger said.

He went on to charge that turnover in FEMA personnel is a big problem.

“We’ve dealt with five different teams since Hurricane Irma and the same thing happened with Charley,” Burger said.

The county’s budget director said he has had to pull up 15-year-old documentation to fight FEMA’s request for repayment, and insurance companies the county dealt with normally don’t keep their records that long.

DeSoto is feeling the pinch from FEMA also. County officials there are trying to work out a payment schedule for about $1.1 million FEMA is requesting.

To come back 15 years later and request this money is a blow to any county’s budget. Small counties like DeSoto and Charlotte don’t have excess millions to burn.

Burger says the county will exhaust all avenues to not pay back the money. He is confident this money grab by FEMA will end as futile as similar attempts to recoup money paid out in other states.

We support the county sticking to its guns.

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