In a break with normal hurricane cleanup procedures, rural counties have been told the Florida Department of Transportation will handle debris removal. The state says it’s a voluntary program. nbsp;Some counties, however, are suspicious of the state’s actions. 

A memo sent by state Division of Emergency Management Director Wes Maul to county emergency operations directors has created confusion in rural counties because it’s a break from normal protocol. Instead of embracing DOT’s efforts, some rural counties believe the state is forcing them into this arrangement and are concerned about the state’s share of reimbursement if they decline the offer. 

“This is not a requirement for local governments; it is an entirely voluntary option available to the specified counties,” said Alberto Moscoso, spokesman at the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “By assuming legal responsibility for their debris operations, in order to lessen the immediate threat to lives and property and at the request of the county, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has offered to front and seek reimbursement for the necessary costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Grant Program.”

Despite the state’s claims, counties that already had preapproved debris removal contracts in place, are also being required by the state to sign an agreement with DOT, adding another level of bureaucracy to a cleanup that will take months to complete. 

Typically counties are responsible for debris removal and hire outside contractors to perform the cleanup. The federal government normally pays 75% of the cleanup cost while the state and local governments split the remaining 25%. 

But Maul’s October 14 memo positions the DOT offer as a way to help fiscally-constrained rural counties. “Once a county’s request for emergency debris removal and road clearance is received, FDOT will conduct and fund any remaining debris removal and emergency road clearance.”  

DOT has filed an emergency procurement to hire contractors to remove trees felled by Hurricane Michael. It’s a contract that could easily exceed $100 million and raises the possibility that one company will receive the entire procurement, which some suspicious county officials say appears to be the state’s ultimate motive. 

Small counties impacted by the hurricane complain the state’s offer to assist with debris removal doesn’t seem voluntary at all. FLA News spoke with elected and appointed officials in several rural counties all of whom declined on the record comment for fear of retribution from the state. They all tell a similar story — the state is trying to take over a process that’s historically fallen on local governments and believe if they don’t agree to the state’s plan, they may hold up the state share of the debris cleanup cost. The state insists that’s not the case. 

The state is moving quickly to hire a contractor. It put out solicitations last week for debris removal in two of DOT’s regional districts. The proposal requires a company to provide 50 crews per regional contract. 

It’s unknown if those state contracts will cover debris removal from private property, adding an additional layer of concern for rural counties. 

The state confirmed local governments that handle Private Property Debris Removal (PPDR) on their own and seek repayment from the federal government. “Local governments can seek reimbursement for Private Property Debris Removal (PPDR) costs if they choose to perform that operation on their own and adhere to all of FEMA’s policy requirements on PPDR,” added DEM spokesman Moscoso.

But for fiscally constrained rural counties even paying for its share of the local match will be a challenge. That’s the catch rural counties find themselves in — despite feeling forced into signing the contract with DOT — the state let’s them off the hook for the local match. Meanwhile, while the state seeks to hire contractors, the debris remains as hurricane recovery enters the two week mark. 

David Bishop is a native Floridian, husband and father. During his 30 year career, David has been a journalist, political operative and communications consultant.