By BETSY CALVERT
PORT CHARLOTTE — It’s the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Charley, and Charlotte County has spent those years in a bureaucratic quagmire that has turned into a potentially expensive loss.
FEMA is demanding to be repaid $14.5 million of what it paid out to the county in the first few years after the biggest storm to hit the region in recent memory.
These were funds spent on things like emergency transport following the category 4 storm that flattened Punta Gorda and parts of Port Charlotte. Also included were costs for repair of public facilities such as the sheriff’s department, removal of downed trees on water utilities, and repairs to the sewer systems.
The logic, revealed after years of legal letters, is that FEMA says private insurance should have paid this.
Worn down by years of struggle, the county’s Budget Director Gordon Burger said bluntly, “We have no intention of paying this back.”
FEMA’s demand is neither logical nor legal, he added.
“We will exhaust every avenue there is. We’re not going to cut FEMA a check for $14 million.”
With FEMA, this is how it goes, said Burger.
The county submits its paper work and shortly after the storm, FEMA approves the expenses and releases the money, he said.
But then, a few years later, a new team of FEMA contractors arrives, under pressure from the top to recoup money that it paid erroneously across the nation, according to Burger.
The new team tells the county that FEMA doesn’t agree with their predecessors’ rulings. They want the money back.
So, he said, the county produces all the documents again, and win another round of approvals from FEMA, but a few years later another set of contractors from FEMA starts up the whole process again.
Despite multiple requests for comment, FEMA did not provide one to the Sun for this story.
Former Charlotte County Emergency Manager during Charley, Wayne Sallade, shared a local news story about this issue last week on his popular Facebook page.
Sallade wrote: “This is such blatant B.S. and I’m very proud of Charlotte County’s leadership for taking a stand and refusing to pay back even a penny of this. They (FEMA) have tried this monkey business with other counties and lost. Don’t back down Charlotte, be strong!”
U.S. Rep. Greg Stuebe issued a prepared statement to the Sun, but not about clawbacks.
“My staff and I are working diligently to address this issue with local county officials and FEMA. It is our hope that those who are in need of these payments will be able to receive them quickly,” he said.
At issue is a relatively new law enacted by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. It’s buried in a re-authorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, but it basically clarifies a regulation that was passed even earlier. That regulation imposes a statute of limitations on FEMA clawbacks. The limit is three years. Legislators passed the newest law, because FEMA had been finding ways around the earlier law, Burger said.
The new law reads: “unless there is evidence of civil or criminal fraud, the Agency may not take any action to recoup covered assistance from the recipient of such assistance if the receipt of such assistance occurred on a date that is more than 3 years before the date on which the Agency first provides to the recipient written notification of an intent to recoup.”
The new law adds: “This section, including the amendments made by this section, may not be construed to invalidate or otherwise affect any administration action completed before the date of enactment of this Act.”
DeSoto County was also hit hard by Charley. It has a much smaller in population and is facing a $1.1 million clawback.
It’s almost like extortion, DeSoto Administrator Mandy Hines said.
FEMA’s state counterpart Florida Division of Emergency Management has been given the job of getting the money back. The message DeSoto got, she said, was give us back the money we say you owe, or you won’t get any money to pay for damage done by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
So the DeSoto County is considering setting up a payment plan, and can imagine paying about $360,000 of costs it agrees could be duplicative. As for the rest, she said, the county can clearly show it was properly paid.
FEMA’s technique with DeSoto is to decide they want money back, and then not tell the county until much later. When the county appeals, FEMA says its too late, Hines said.
“They don’t really give any explanation,” Burger said of FEMA. “Any information we have gotten from them, we have had to basically bring the legal team in to force them to give us some answers.”
Of the three-year limit, Burger said, “FEMA is totally ignoring that...They’re so big, they’re so powerful, they’re just thumbing their noses at people.”
Hines said she hopes for a legislative solution, although the federal law was just passed.
“Why are we even having these fights?” she asked.