As Windermere town officials look ahead to next year’s budget, disaster-relief funds are causing them to look back almost 15 years.
Currently, the town is working around approximately $483,000 of emergency-relief funds that were held back from the Florida Department of Emergency Management to be applied to a balance from the funds de-obligated, or requested for return, from hurricanes Jeanne and Francis back in 2004.
“When you’re running a municipality or a town, especially one that has a $5 million or $6 million budget, you need to be certain about these things in order to properly budget, to properly plan for the (next) disaster,” Windermere Mayor Jim O’Brien said. “And without that kind of assurance … it just makes it very difficult for us to do our job.”
How did this happen?
In 2004, the town received $1 million in relief funds to be used in the wake of hurricanes Jeanne and Francis from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a public-assistance agency that provides aid to state and local governments in times of disaster and the Florida DEM.
In late 2015, almost a decade later, Town Manager Robert Smith said the town of Windermere was notified that during the review process, FEMA decided to de-obligate a little more than $498,000 of the initial amount, saying the town did not competitively bid the cleanup services and did not need the full amount.
Having already spent the initial funds, the town, aided by both an attorney and tax and accounting firm, decided to appeal the decision after finding more than $430,000 of appealable funds, town records show. The town argued not only did it use the funds correctly, but under the Stafford Act the funds could not be de-obligated because the expenditures were reasonable and used for the purpose of the grant.
In 2016, during the appeal process, FEMA requested Final Requests for Information (RFIs) for additional documents regarding the timing of the appeals. The town submitted the documents within the allotted time, but the DEM missed the deadline, according to a memorandum to town officials from the Gray Robinson attorney’s office, detailing the process.
According to the memorandum, the FEMA regional director denied the appeal as untimely. The town appealed that denial, but it was denied again by FEMA, saying the final decision had been made. This exhausted the town’s options for appeals regarding Francis and Jeanne funding.
In the meantime, in 2017, Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma, causing damage to the town, for which the town of Windermere applied to FEMA for monetary assistance.
In the aftermath of Irma, the town was approved for $625,017 from FEMA. However, instead of making the full amount available to the town, the DEM will withhold $483,837 to apply to the town’s balance from the previous hurricanes, Smith said.
The town has been budgeting around the funds in question since the storm. According to O’Brien, a road pavement project that was promised to residents was paid for out of the town’s reserves after being delayed about six months.
“While we still have good reserves for a town our size, but, you know, these things truly do matter,” O’Brien said. “Three or four hundred thousand dollars matter to a town with a budget of $6 million.”
O’Brien said the town is talking to staff at the DEM and Florida legislators to try to release at least some of the funding. O’Brien said FEMA and DEM staff changes frequently, but they’ve now pinpointed people to talk with about the DEM releasing more of the Irma funds to the town when it is distributed.
“The problem with that is, while that is short-term relief, that means the next storm … the next time we’re working with the state and local government, we’re going to start at a deficit,” O’Brien said.
As the town begins the process of budgeting for the next fiscal year, Smith said the town also has to think about future storm damage and other expenses that can arise.
“You always want to save for a rainy day,” Smith said. “Not only for a (named) storm, but we also, in 2013, had a microburst that came through town that cost the town about $250,000, and that wasn’t a storm that was declared an emergency so we had to eat that entire cost.”
So far, the town of Windermere has received slightly more than $20,000 for Irma recovery.
O’Brien said he was hopeful the town and the agencies can come to some kind of agreement that works out fairly for both parties.
“Really it’s about just doing what’s right by your smaller municipalities, because we’re the tip of the spear in terms of all these efforts for disaster,” O’Brien said. “And we need to know that at the end of the day if we do things correctly, and in accordance with the rules, we are going to be reimbursed appropriately.”