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Scott disaster chief sees 'room for improvement' in storm payouts

Gov. Rick Scott’s interim disaster chief told lawmakers Wednesday he sees “significant room for improvement” in how long it takes to repay cities and counties for recovery costs for past hurricanes.

As Scott visited Chicago on his latest job-poaching mission, his administration’s handling of the post-Irma recovery came under scrutiny in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Wes Maul, 29, took over the Division of Emergency Management on Oct. 1, three weeks after Hurricane Irma made its first of two Category 4 landfalls.

Maul was prepared and escaped unscathed. His debut in the Senate was an exercise in damage control, as senators have fielded many complaints from local officials about the extraordinarily long delays in reimbursement.

“We are updating what I believe to be an inadequate system,” Maul told senators.

For example, Putnam County is waiting for the state to repay it for Hurricane Matthew more than a year ago. County Commission Chairman Larry Harvey said Putnam got its first repayment check Oct. 11, and the county has received a total of $11,000.

Also briefly on the hot seat was Scott transportation chief Mike Dew, who was grilled on DOT’s no-bid emergency contract for debris removal in the Florida Keys that has drawn critical attention.

DOT limited bid proposals to six firms already under contract. Senators glossed lightly over the report by CBS4 in Miami that DOT’s action dramatically raised debris removal costs in Monroe County.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who represents 11 North Florida counties, asked Maul why a spreadsheet showing the status of hundreds of payment requests lists many as “unrequested,” a year later.

Maul said that means the state has not yet received invoices and receipts for actual work completed. He said “discrepancies in supporting documents” is one reason why payment delays occur.

State officials estimate the current recovery costs from Irma at about $650 million, and that all but about $50 million will be reimbursed by the federal government.

Scott’s budget director, Cynthia Kelly, said the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a higher-than-usual federal reimbursement rate that she said will reduce the impact on the state budget over a period of years.

Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, urged senators to increase state aid to county school districts, hospitals and clinics to absorb the influx of Puerto Rican evacuees from Hurricane Maria. Bursting into tears, Torres urged the state to act with urgency “as if it was your family members who were suffering.”