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Frustrated Florida Panhandle counties find BP's checks not in the mail

By Rich Phillips, CNN
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Panhandle to BP: We need money right now
  • Florida Panhandle counties waiting on checks from BP
  • Counties have elaborate plans to block oil but need BP money to make plans reality
  • Officials say reimbursement system keeps changing
  • "We just need them to show me the money," says one official

Fort Walton Beach, Florida (CNN) -- It's sort of like they're all dressed up with no place to go. But preparing for oil on your shore is not exactly a night out on the town.

Florida Gulf Coast counties say they're frustrated beyond belief, after putting in elaborate, exhaustive plans to stop the oil, only to find that BP's check isn't even in the mail.

"We've got our permits. We've got everything signed off and ready to go," said Dino Villani, director of public safety in Okaloosa County. "The holdup now is BP. We have no money to do the protective measures."

Okaloosa County has created a multi-layered plan to try to stop the oil from coming onto its beaches and to protect the Destin Pass waterway, an area enjoyed by boaters and beachgoers. County officials plan on using barges, containment boom and an air net to stop the flow of crude, but they need all of these things in place for their plan to work.

And the thing they need most is $2.8 million up front and $2.5 million a month to stay operational -- money they've filed for with BP.

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"We're virtually operating on a credit card. This is a county that's reserves are low. We're impacted by a reduction in ad valorem taxes," said Villani.

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Florida Sen. Bill Nelson says he's seen the same thing happen all throughout this process.

"You had the Coast Guard doing one thing and you had BP doing another thing and this is why I've been raising cane for weeks," said Nelson.

Nelson met with Okaloosa County officials who asked for his help in getting their check.

"This county and a lot of these other little counties that simply don't have the financial wherewithall to be paying all of these bills, and they've got to have some relief. So, yes. they will get their money."

After the meeting, CNN questioned BP's community cupport coordinator assigned to Okaloosa County, Jay Prothro.

Asked if checks were coming and how soon, Prothro responded, "I can't speak to how soon they will get it, but I can tell you, there is a process in place and we're working to get those refunds."

"This whole process is new and everybody is learning as they go and trying to figure out what makes the most sense, and that's what they're working on."

Pressed on the delay in the counties receiving funds, Prothro responded, "Like I say, they've set out some guidelines on how to get the reimbursement and the county has filed, is my understanding, and I have to run some traps to figure out where it is in the process and see what the answer is to that. I just can't tell you right now."

But the counties say there is no real process, and what does exist has been painful for everyone staring at the same problem.

"I kind of make a joke. We're on plan F. We've already gone through plans A through E," says Amy Lovoy, bureau chief for management and budget services in Escambia County.

"A check or money order, or a wire. Anything they want to give us is fine."

Escambia County has a $9.1 million claim with BP for its oil protection including booms, reconnaissance flights, and operations.

The county says it also needs $4.8 million a month to maintain the plan, for as long as the oil remains a problem. Lovoy says the good news is that BP is returning her phone calls, but the bad news is what she's hearing isn't helping.

"We're definitely hearing back from them, but they keep saying that the process has changed. They say, 'We know you've submitted a claim,' but they say, 'The process has changed and you have to re-submit the claim and paperwork.'"

And in the eastern Panhandle, Bay County, which includes Panama City, has had the same problem. County officials say they need $3 million to build a more robust boom system, and about $8,300 per day to maintain it.

Other costs, like workers' overtime pay, are estimated at $10,000 per day.

Officials of the Florida Association of Counties and emergency managers are scheduled to meet on Wednesday with U.S. Coast Guard representatives and BP officials because, they say, they need the claims process to be fixed right now.

The chairman of the Okaloosa County Commission, Wayne Harris, went right to the point.

"We just need them to show me the money," he said.

"If they give us an American Express diamond or black (card), I'm happy with it."