Along with the three commissioners and the county clerk, 11 other interested parties crammed into the conference room of the Stephens County commissioners’ office Monday morning to discuss debris removal from properties that burned during the recent wildfires.

Glancing around the room, District 6 District Attorney Gene Christian quipped, “Since we’ve got this big a group together, we could just go out and clean it up today.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The logistics of the cleanup are complicated and commissioners requested the conference in an attempt to cut through the red tape and legalities and get some straight answers on what they could, or could not do, to help.

An hour later, Christian was recommending that the county use a private contractor for the debris removal, and commissioners were trying to figure out where the money would come from to pay for it.

The first problem is figuring out how much the cleanup might cost, so FEMA Public Assistance Coordinator Philip Brown said he’d send appraisers out to the remaining sites to prepare an estimate.

“We’ll get the ball rolling by getting you a ballpark figure, and check on whether we have to file an extension (to extend the time frame to complete the work),” said Brown. “We’re here to work with you guys.”

During the March 1 wildfire, 54 homes were destroyed, reported Gary Ball, Stephens County’s emergency management director.

Most of the properties covered by insurance have already been cleaned up, and in several cases homeowners are rebuilding, he noted.

But approximately 20 sites remained untouched, he added, since county crews are not allowed to work on private property and the disaster was too small for FEMA to hire a contractor to do the job.

Christian said he found a statute that would allow the county to act, in combination with the county’s health department, in this “extreme emergency circumstance” if each property owner signed a right of entry form to allow workers onto his or her private property.

“But this will be a one-time offer (for the involved property owners),” said Christian, who noted that any property owner not participating in the upcoming cleanup effort will be responsible for any nuisance abatement in the future, with the possibility of liens assessed against the property.

FEMA will pay for 75 percent of the cleanup cost, with the remaining 25 percent to be split between the county and state. However, Ball warned that the state’s emergency funds were depleted and that over $16 million in claims dating as far back as the year 2000 were still waiting to be paid, so he advised the commissioners to consider the entire 25 percent as the county’s responsibility.

And FEMA’s Brown said that FEMA’s 75 percent would be in the form of reimbursement funneled through the state, so any “up front” cost would be paid from the county coffers.

It was dismaying news for the county officials, who operate under tight budget constraints.

Christian advised commissioners that the funds would have to come from the county’s general fund. District 2 Commissioner Frank Kelly said he hoped ASCOG officials are successful in making REAP funds available for the county’s 25 percent of the cleanup effort.

Brown assured the council that FEMA would pay its portion of all “reasonable” costs, and that the turnaround on submitted bills would be approximately 30 days.

Christian, rifling through guidelines from the FEMA specifications, said he would provide the right of entry forms needed for the property owners, which Ball and Jimmy Pryor will then have signed and notarized by the specific property owners.

Meanwhile, commissioners will be working on bid specifications for the turnkey job, and hope to be able to go out for bid early in June.

Also present at the meeting were Lonnie Cox and Clifford Frick of Oklahoma Emergency Management; James McCrary, Jim Holderfield and Brown from FEMA; and Chris Munn of the Stephens County Health Department.

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