The Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved setting a deadline of Jan. 31 for storm related debris to be placed on the roadside for removal.
The deadline is 11 days later than that recommended by the Florida Department of Transportation, which is footing the bill for the county’s clean-up in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
And though several speakers and Commissioner Phil McCroan expressed concerns about all residents being able to meet that deadline, particularly those waiting on insurance companies, county staff said a deadline had to be set as the cleaning process moves forward.
County Administrator Michael Hammond noted that under guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), clean-up of roadways must be completed six months after the date of the storm, in this case March 6.
“That is the drop-dead date to be done totally as far as roadside pick-up,” Hammond said. “Once they pull the plug, we can’t pick up the bill.”
The most significant factor for the county, Hammond said, was that under an order from Gov. Rick Scott in the days following Michael the FDOT was charged with picking up the tab for clean-up in several rural counties, including Gulf.
“This bill, which is the tens of millions of dollars, is being picked up by the DOT,” Hammond said.
“Once we clean-up we don’t want to junk it up, but we also want as many people as possible to take advantage of this program.”
Hammond said pick-up of the county roadsides will continue, including white goods, until all is collected.
After that time, he said, the county may have to impose warnings and criminal charges, which are a felony, against those who illegally dump on the roadside.
The county, he added, is working on separate contracts for the clean-up of roadside ditches, waterways and St. Joseph Bay.
Hammond, underscoring the county’s financial plight, noted that county’s uninsured damages have already topped $27 million and are climbing.
And Bay County and its municipalities are already spending tens of millions of local taxpayers’ money to fund the clean-up in that county.
“Everybody knows there has to be an end date,” said Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager. “We couldn’t just extend it out and extend it out.”
The BOCC also took the step Tuesday of moving forward the process of the right-of-entry program for cleanup of individual private properties.
“There are a lot of people of need, including the elderly, who need that program,” Yeager said.
That right of entry program, he said, had been negotiated to include taking down leaning trees and cleaning of the yard nearest the roadway; FEMA contractors will not clean the entire property.
Dr. Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association of Gulf County, expressed concerns about those homeowners who have yet to settle with insurance companies or even have damages assessed by an adjuster.
The cost of hauling home debris to the suitable landfill was higher than demolishing the house.
“Private people are getting beat up,” Hardman said.
McCroan, whose district includes the majority of the south end of the county, added, I have real concerns about setting this date.”
Tipping fees for a demolished home built on a foundation would be around $10,000, Hammond noted.
But, he said, while commissioners and staff can be sympathetic to the plight of some individuals, the county would not be where it is in the clean-up process if not for the assumption of the bill by the FDOT.
Even if FEMA granted an extension of the deadline for roadside debris, which the FDOT recommended be Jan. 20, Hammond said the FDOT and state would have to also grant the extension.
The odds of which, he added, were not in the county’s favor.
“Gulf County does not have the financial stability to extend this program,” said county attorney Jeremy Novak.
The Small Business Administration is winding down operations in the county, though the agency continues to work out of the Gulf/Franklin campus of Gulf Coast State College.
To date, in Gulf County the SBA has provided 789 loans totaling $46.8 million.
Included are 710 loans to homeowners equal to $35.8 million, 70 business loans totaling $7.6 million and 10 economic injury loans equaling $684,000.
Though the deadline for loans for physical damages is past, individuals and businesses may still apply with a letter explaining the reason for not filing during the initial period.
In addition, individuals and businesses may still file for economic injury loans.