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Salt Lake County awaits evacuee paybacks

State says S.L. County just has to do paperwork

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Salt Lake County wishes it was only a case of "the check's in the mail." But when that check finally comes, it may not have been worth the wait.

County officials are still waiting for a full reimbursement for monies spent in the state's effort in aiding Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Meanwhile a handful of state agencies have already been paid back more than a half million dollars for their efforts.

State officials allegedly told the county the reimbursement it will receive — eventually — will be "far less than" full reimbursement, said Doug Willmore, chief administrative officer. "That's all we were told, with no reasoning at all.

"We've been led to believe although we were promised a full reimbursement, the fact of the matter is the reimbursement will be far less than that," Willmore said.

The money will come once the county completes the necessary paperwork and submits its costs to the state, said Derek Jensen, spokesman for the Utah Department of Homeland Security.

The state has already received $556,814.05 from the federal government for costs related to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

How much more money is expected to come, however, is uncertain. Reimbursement requests are continuing to flow into the department, which then submits them to FEMA for final approval, Jensen said.

"At this point, it would be hard to really speculate what is still coming in because, again, it's us waiting to receive information from the individual departments," he said.

The most expensive costs so far, according to records obtained by the Deseret Morning News through a Government Records Access and Management Act request, include housing at $274,693.29 and the transportation of evacuees from the airport to Camp Williams and, later, off the military base at $68,014.

To date, the state's Department of Administrative Services, Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security and Department of Community and Culture, as well as the Utah Transit Authority, University of Utah and Utah National Guard have all received reimbursement for services offered to Utah's Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Absent is the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which had a large presence at Camp Williams helping the 583 evacuees with everything from food-stamp applications to transportation.

Salt Lake County already asked the state for $414,789 to pay for the United Fire Authority's costs during the disaster, but has not yet received payment. UFA firefighters and paramedics traveled to the hurricane-stricken area to assist in search and rescue.

The county still needs to ask for $142, 546 to pay for costs incurred by five other departments including the sheriff's office. The state decided to contract out police work to the sheriff's office, and before any payment can be made, a memorandum of understanding must be signed by both the state and the county, Jensen said.

The state sent the memo to the county on Nov. 2 and hasn't received anything back since. However, on Tuesday the Salt Lake County Council reviewed an interlocal agreement between the two agencies so the reimbursement process can start.

"As soon as we get that, we're ready to get everything going," Jensen said.

Although state officials allegedly told Willmore he will not be fully reimbursed, Jensen said all FEMA-eligible costs will be paid back once the necessary paperwork is completed. Some things like overtime will not be reimbursed, he said.

Rumblings about slow FEMA reimbursement payments have been circulating throughout the county for months, Willmore said.

"Other states have been having similar issues throughout the country," Willmore said. "When I heard that could be happening here, I just wasn't surprised. I said, 'Oh well, we did a good thing and figured we'd do what we could.'"

Despite the county's concerns, Jensen said the state has worked well with FEMA to reimburse agencies that have submitted their costs.

"They've been reasonably quick in their response," he said.

Still, the Department of Homeland Security expects to continue to work with FEMA for some time making sure that everyone who assisted the hurricane evacuees are reimbursed.

"Typically on disasters it can take a pretty good amount of time before everything's closed off," he said. Costs to the state during its relief efforts are varied, according to a review of the documents obtained Wednesday. They include $32,000 for prescription drugs for the evacuees, provided by the University of Utah's hospitals and clinics, and almost $23,000 for airline tickets purchased by the Utah Department of Administrative Services to "reunite families."

The Utah Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security has submitted three requests for reimbursement totaling nearly $144,000 for everything from transporting evacuees around Camp Williams to paying for food, lodging, travel and overtime for state employees working on the base between Aug. 27 and Oct. 21. Close to $90,000 of the total also went to pay back the Utah Hospitals and Health Systems Association for staffing a health clinic at Camp Williams.

And nearly half the total reimbursement to date has gone to the Utah Department of Community and Culture to refund the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County housing authorities for rental costs related to providing interim housing for the 399 evacuees remaining in Utah.

E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com;