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Politics

Who gets to benefit from $100-million?

By IVAN PENN
Published March 22, 2007


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Back and forth it's gone, like some ultra high-stakes game of pingpong, a fight over $100-million.

First, the state said it planned to put all $100-million of federal money into a program to help Floridians harden their homes against hurricanes.

After local governments squawked that they needed the money to help victims of Hurricane Wilma and other disasters - people who literally still do not have a roof over their heads - the state said don't worry: We can give you some of the $100-million to protect those people.

But now they're back at it: The coordinator of the My Safe Florida Home program again says the $100-million is to be used to help protect against future disasters.

Meanwhile, local governments are lobbying the governor's office to protect their interests.

The governor's Office of Policy and Budget has been discussing the issue with the state Department of Community Affairs, which handles such grants.

"It's a new administration," said Jon Peck, a spokesman for the department. "They just want to see which way they want to go with it."

The governor's office has not commented on what Gov. Charlie Crist intends to do.

* * *

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the state the $100-million last year as part of a congressional aid package designed to assist victims of hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush's administration applied for the grant, emphasizing that Florida wanted to use its allocation primarily for mitigation - strengthening homes against future storms.

"Fortifying Florida is essential for instilling a culture of preparedness," Bush said in October as he announced plans to use the entire $100-million for mitigation.

"We want to help Floridians harden their homes against potential damage, which is an investment that can save them money on their annual insurance premium and spare them the anguish of losing their home during a natural disaster."

Bush and the Legislature launched a major mitigation effort last year, dubbing it My Safe Florida Home and allocating $250-million in state money. The program offers free home inspections and matching grants up to $5,000 to qualified homeowners who make recommended improvements.

Local officials were outraged that money Congress allocated to help people who had homes ruined by storms instead would go to help potential victims strengthen their homes. They gave the state an earful at a public conference call in December.

State officials emphasized that they included a clause in their action plan to HUD that allows some of the money to provide aid for 2005 hurricane victims.

Local government officials see that clause as insufficient.

"It's just a word game," said Dan Wall, of the Miami-Dade County Office of Strategic Management. "It is mitigation. If it was for recovery, the word would be 'recovery.' "

"We believe that the U.S. Congress' intent was to fix damage" not strengthen homes, he said.

Tami Torres, the My Safe Florida Home coordinator, told the Times in a recent interview that the $100-million is to help homeowners protect against future damage.

"It is for mitigation," Torres said.

Local government officials believe such comments affirm their belief that the state intends to use all of the $100-million for mitigation, not recovery.

On March 9, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez sent Gov. Crist a letter urging him to focus on 2005 hurricane victims and make mitigation efforts a subordinate concern.

"I must respectfully urge you to amend the Florida Department of Community Affairs 2006 Disaster Recovery Program Action Plan submitted to U.S. HUD on December 12, 2006 to mirror the Action Plan utilized for the initial allocation of these dollars to Florida and do not commit these dollars to the My Safe Florida Home Program," Alvarez wrote.

"Instead, I urge your administration and the state to work with impacted counties and cities and utilize the $100 million" for the 2005 recovery victims.

Miami-Dade County alone estimates that it has about $68-million in unmet recovery needs as a result of the Wilma and Katrina storms. The $100-million grant could provide $16-million for Miami-Dade, if all of those dollars were used for recovery instead of mitigation.

Ivan Penn covers consumer affairs issues. He can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or 727 892-2332.

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 01:33:05]


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