Officials swamped by relief claims

PIKEVILLE — In the past year, three major federally declared disasters have all but overwhelmed state emergency officials who were already facing a backlog of unpaid public assistance dollars totaling $17 million going back to 2000.

State officials say they're taking steps to not only make timely reimbursements to counties and agencies rebuilding after damaging winds from Hurricane Ike, the February ice storm and May rain and flooding but also to clear that backlog of 14 open disasters.

The Kentucky Emergency Management Division has added dozens of staff, is building an online project-tracking database, and is moving to allow a greater portion of payments to be made before final inspections of projects are finished.

"The ice storm was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, who became director of Kentucky Emergency Management one year ago. His office is responsible for disbursing Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance dollars after a disaster.

That February storm, which cut a wide path of destruction, saw the biggest number of disaster claims in state history, Heltzel said. And claims are still rolling in from 24 counties affected by a line of thunderstorms that rolled through the state in early May, causing tornadoes and widespread flooding.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, the state has added 27 staff and increased payroll from about $8.5 million to $12.1 million a year, some paid with federal grant money and mostly assigned to the part of the office handling public assistance payments. When Heltzel came on in July 2008, he said, the office had only two people handling those payments.

Delays in payments put a burden on counties, which often have to borrow money to fix roads, bridges and other infrastructure after a disaster and then wait years for reimbursement from state and federal dollars, said Pike Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford.

When he started his term, Rutherford said, he was told by the county's accountant that the county was owed around $650,000 for repairs made to roads and bridges after flooding in May 2002, February 2003, May 2004 and April 2007. The county just received $137,000 payment in June for the 2003 flooding, Rutherford's office said.

The state says some blame for delays in payments rests on the counties' shoulders. Heltzel said that county government turnover, lack of attention to accounting and disasters hitting one after another can delay paperwork and final inspections of projects to allow full reimbursement.

Rutherford said that's not the case in Pike County. He said the county's accountant has been the same through all of the most recent disasters and told him of the payments owed long ago.

Now, the state is also moving to change regulations so that counties can receive 90 percent of the reimbursement for disaster repairs before final inspections are made.

Before, the county or public agency could receive only 56 percent of the funding before submitting a project for final inspection. Heltzel said some local officials get a chunk of the money and then let the final inspections go, ignoring the rest of the reimbursements.

But the state has started sending weekly update letters to county governments, Heltzel said, in an effort to keep local officials on top of project and payment status. An online project-tracking database should be launched in the next month.

The state's staffing increase is starting to work, too, Heltzel said.

In June, the state made $8 million in public assistance payments to county governments and public agencies affected by disasters, and in July, that number more than doubled to $17 million.