Beaufort County’s hurricane gamble pays off

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/Voices by

By Bill Rauch

When the dust has settled on this year’s hurricane season, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conventions, conferences and seminars begin early next year, the presenters will be talking about Beaufort County and its County Council chairman, Paul Sommerville.

Why?

Because Sommerville sniffed out a FEMA loophole, swiftly and expertly exploited it, and within days of Hurricane Matthew’s departure won for Beaufort County’s taxpayers an estimated $15 million prize. Moreover, here and only here in South Carolina today the debris Hurricane Matthew left behind in private communities is being picked up at government (local, state or federal) expense.

Meanwhile none of the other coastal disaster-declared South Carolina counties — Colleton, Charleston, Georgetown and Horry, nor Gov. Nikki Haley — are today even in the game. The debris is piled high along Horry and Georgetown’s private roads, and no one is picking it up. And in Charleston and Colleton counties today in the private communities, it’s every man for himself.

Here’s how it happened.

Half of Beaufort County’s roads are private, gated, and/or controlled by property owners’ associations. That means the cost of removing post-Matthew debris brought to the roadsides of half the roads in the county would not under FEMA’s regulations be reimbursed by FEMA.

There are only three exceptions to the FEMA policy: if there is a health emergency, if the county typically picks up debris from these places or if the county’s finances are such that it would go broke if it had to pay for the debris removal itself.

Beaufort County does not typically pick up yard waste along its privately-owned roads, and with a $30 million emergency reserve fund and additional borrowing capacity, the county would not face bankruptcy if it were forced to pay a $15 million unexpected bill.

But what about the health emergency angle?

After Hurricane Matthew moved on up the coast on Oct. 22, knowing the three exclusions, Sommerville reached out to State Sen. Tom Davis to ask Davis to ask Haley to declare a health emergency for all the affected counties. It was a reasonable request although had the governor granted it, it would have been unprecedented.

The governor’s office explained to me last week that it is their view that health emergencies are things like terrorist bio-medical attacks, rogue viruses and major chemical spills or releases. Not hurricanes. And that is what the governor told Davis in the days after the storm.

As the early signs back from Columbia appeared negative, Sommerville doubled down and called on former-Gov. Mark Sanford to intercede with Haley. Sanford now represents Beaufort County and much of the Carolina coast in the U.S. Congress.

But the governor continued to demur.

Leaving half of Beaufort County to fend for themselves was not an option for Sommerville. The county was going to pick up the debris on all the county’s roadsides, but would the county have to pay?

Or was there another way to get FEMA to pay for the removal of the estimated half-million cubic yards of debris that Hurricane Matthew left behind in Beaufort County’s private communities?

On Oct. 23, with a regularly scheduled county council meeting scheduled for the next afternoon, Sommerville wrestled with that question with Deputy County Administrator Josh Gruber and county attorney Tom Keaveny. Together the three settled on Beaufort County’s Code of Ordinances Sections 22-28, the local law that enables county council to issue proclamations and regulations concerning health, safety and disaster relief during civil emergencies. Proclaiming a health emergency would at least permit the county to change its own policy and start picking up on the private roads, and it might meet FEMA’s test to enable the federal reimbursement.

Sommerville started calling his council members to bring them in on the plan. That’s when he found most of them were still evacuated and wouldn’t be able to get to the Monday meeting. Some proposed canceling it, but Sommerville knew he had to get the health emergency declared before the county’s contractors could start picking up the private roads. So, speaking one-by-one with his members, he determined he could probably get a quorum together on Oct. 26, so he postponed the meeting.

At the postponed meeting, still with two of his 11 members absent, a lively discussion of the emergency health measure ensued both in the executive session period and later in open session. Some members who represented poorer districts were uncomfortable putting up to $20 million at risk. In fact no one much liked it.

But the alternative — telling the residents who live in POAs, and/or behind gates, and/or on private roads, telling half the county that they were going to have to go it alone — was worse. No one had a better idea, so Sommerville’s plan was finally passed by a vote of 8-1.

The following morning the county’s debris removal contractors started rolling into the county’s dozens of private communities, including hard-hit Fripp and Harbor islands that are represented by Sommerville.

That was a big step, but the big dollar question remained: Would the county be reimbursed by FEMA at the standard public roads level of 75 percent for the cost of the debris removal on the county’s private roads? Would the local Health Emergency Proclamation gambit work?

It didn’t take long to find out. On Nov. 1, FEMA sent word the agency would reimburse Beaufort County for its private roads debris pick-up costs. Current estimates are those costs will be about $20 million. Of this FEMA has agreed to reimburse at the standard 75-percent level.

A FEMA spokesman told me last week that Beaufort County’s Health Emergency Proclamation had been “an important factor” in the federal agency’s unusual and swift decision.

If the current value of the county’s mil is $1.75 million, Sommerville’s out-of-the-box health emergency proclamation saved Beaufort County’s taxpayers the equivalent of 8.6 mils on their property taxes next year.

Meanwhile, neither Colleton nor Charleston counties have even applied to FEMA to be reimbursed for private road debris pick-up costs. Colleton officials didn’t respond to repeated calls, but Edisto Beach residents have told me the residents on private roads there have been told they are on their own. That is also the case in Charleston County, a spokesperson for Charleston County confirmed last week.

In Georgetown and Horry counties, the debris continues to pile up along private road roadsides, spokespersons for those counties confirmed last week, because the county councils there don’t want to risk having to bear locally the costs of those cleanups. In Georgetown County, debris disposal site fees are being waived for private communities, a spokesman said. But both counties were still waiting at press time for word back from FEMA whether the federal agency will reimburse them. Neither Georgetown nor Horry have passed local health emergency measures.

Beaufort County announced last week that countywide debris pick-up will be handled in three “passes.” The county now has over 100 contractors working its debris removal job. Their enormous black trucks and trailers are a commonplace sight on Beaufort County’s roads — both the public and private ones — these days.

By week’s end, Beaufort County officials predict, their team will be approaching the conclusion of its “first pass,” and by then about half of the of countywide post-Matthew debris will have been picked up.

And Sommerville, a die-hard college football fan, can enjoy Saturday’s Clemson-Pitt game with his daughter, a junior at Clemson University, knowing Beaufort County’s army of debris removal contractors are hard at work at home picking up the rest … and on the feds’ tab.