John Bartus

Among the typical conspiracy theories and partisan bickering, there have been some serious complaints about issues in Marathon on social media. People wonder why there are still very few street signs, the lights down Sombrero Beach Road don’t work — the litany of Irma frustrations remains long and, well, frustrating. And that’s totally understandable.

We are well past Irma’s second anniversary. And out of more that $30 million in direct costs to the city from Irma, Marathon has yet to see $2 million in FEMA reimbursement.

And it helps to recall that the key word is “reimbursement.” The city has to spend the money on a project before we get any funds. Not only that, the city can’t spend any money until the project has been approved for reimbursement by FEMA. 

Marathon moved forward on Sombrero Beach because FEMA approved the PW (Project Worksheet). We prioritized our parks and beach restoration to help restore quality of life for our residents. But Marathon hasn’t had that many other PWs approved… including those for street signs. Federal law does not allow the city to move forward without FEMA approval; ergo, no street signs.

I realize how frustrating it is. It’s very frustrating to drive up and down U.S. 1 and see street numbers painted on electric tie line poles. It’s frustrating to want to do so much more knowing that our hands are tied by FEMA’s bureaucracy.

The only thing we can realistically do is keep pushing and keep lobbying FEMA to push our PWs through. Our city manager, council members, staff and lobbyists continue working to make progress and rebuild our town. Marathon has budgeted for $11 million in FEMA reimbursements this fiscal year, and I’m hopeful our hard work and perseverance will pay off. In the interim, patience and understanding will go a long way.

There is, however, one way we could have done more. The city has the same millage rate it did before Irma came through. Had we only voted in a nice tax increase, and not worried about waiting for reimbursement, we could have had street signs and a whole bunch of other stuff. Thankfully, our manager, finance director and staff kept the city running debt-free while we continue recovery under the same millage rate we had in 2016. We worked hard to make sure that even though things weren’t the best, our tax millage rate wouldn’t increase.

In the “bit of good news department,” I’m pleased to report that the Sombrero Beach Road lights have gone out to bid! Additionally, the city has a decent agenda of park projects and improvements on tap this year. We are making improvements, slowly but surely, as we continue to fight for FEMA money.

While social media is full of spleen-venting folks looking for and assuming the worst, it always helps to find the real story. Instead of tearing down, why not try and be part of the solution? 

If you, like many of us, aren’t happy about FEMA’s reimbursement timetable, you can help. Pick up the phone or computer, and contact our congresswoman and our two senators. If they suddenly got hundreds — even thousands — of calls and emails from frustrated constituents about why our islands are still waiting for Hurricane Irma assistance, it just might make a difference!

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