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Panhandle officials: BP hasn't paid for cleanup costs

Nearly a week ago, a BP representative stood in front of various county officials and told them checks were going to start arriving for the mounting costs related to the ongoing oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. If they didn't, Ray Dempsey said, government officials could hunt him down and spank him in the head. Dempsey might want to find some protective headgear. As of this morning, Escambia County still had not received a penny from BP despite spending about $6 million. In Walton County, there has been no reimbursement despite forking out $2 million.
In Bay County, it's the same story - lots of expenses and nothing in return. For cash-strapped counties in tough economic times, that's not a good thing. And officials are getting more frustrated daily. "Many counties like ours have had to reduce funding or eliminate funding reserves because we are trying not to raise taxes,'' said Wilson Robertson, a county commissioner in Escambia. "This is going to deplete our reserves in another couple months. We are spending faster than we are collecting.'' Bill Imfeld, finance director with Walton County, echoed the same sentiments. "We are very fortunate to have some money in reserves,'' he said. "We are using that money, but it's not a bottomless pit. We don't have the billions that BP has.'' Walton County submitted a claim for $1.5 million a week ago. It took a long time simply to figure out the ever-changing maze of the claims process, Imfeld said. "We have not even had a call back from their adjuster,'' the finance director said. "There has not been a peep.'' In Escambia, Robertson said he is expecting a $1.9 million check from BP any day. The county has been submitting claims on a weekly basis for costs related to the cleanup, including boom, aerial flyovers, water testing, skimming and other costs. But as state Sen. Don Gaetz, a Republican representing much of the affected Panhandle areas, put it, "I have heard about that $1.9 million check for days now.'' Dempsey, the BP official who made the promises at last week's meeting of the Florida Association of Counties in Tampa, did not immediately return a telephone call or email seeking comment. The only county getting money appears to be Santa Rosa, which got a check for $104,000 on Friday. The county still is owed $133,000 for June costs, said County Administrator Hunter Walker. "It's a difficult time as far as cash flow goes,'' he said. To that end, several officials have recommended that BP give Panhandle counties money in advance to pay for future costs. That way, counties don't have to tap funds for a disaster that was not of their making. "It's obvious that we are going to be incurring expenses for the rest of the year,'' said Gordon Goodin, a county commissioner from Santa Rosa. "So it would not hurt them to put up some good-faith money. The last thing we should have to worry about is money. But this is their problem and they made it ours.'' Gaetz is peeved at what he calls the sluggishness that BP has when it comes to the claims process. On Friday of last week, a conference call that took a week to set up was supposed to have occurred involving BP officials who have operational authority over the claims process, Gaetz said. BP officials did not participate as promised, he added. "They stiffed us, they stiffed the Senate,'' he said. Now, he and Senate President Jeff Atwater want BP executives - not public relations people, attorneys or lobbyists - to answer questions at a meeting of the Senate select committee on the economy. That meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Monday in Pensacola, which has taken the brunt of the oil invasion in Florida. "We want to ask questions about the claims process, we want to know when local governments will be reimbursed,'' Gaetz said. "The counties are experiencing a very heavy burden going through their cash reserves to pay for oil spill-related issues.''

Reporter Rob Shaw can be reached at (813) 259-7999.

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