Okla. gov asks leg. to reimburse emergency fund

SEAN MURPHY - Associated Press
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, left, gestures as she speaks to a news conference in Oklahoma City, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. Fallin discussed the state's response to the drought. At right is Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma Emergency Management Director. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said Monday that she plans to ask the Legislature for a $36 million appropriation to the State Emergency Fund to reimburse local municipalities and utility cooperatives for a backlog of disaster-related costs dating back to 2007.

Fallin discussed the backlog during a press briefing on how Oklahoma is handling the ongoing drought and one of the hottest summers on record.

"Ice storms, tornadoes, fires, and drought have hit our local communities hard, and many are stretched thin by the cost of relief and recovery efforts," Fallin said. "It is not fair for the state of Oklahoma to ignore its obligations when towns and cities are struggling to find the money to pay for firefighters, police and basic services."

The backlog is a result of more than two dozen presidential disaster or emergency declarations in Oklahoma since 2007. During such emergencies, the federal government reimburses cities and towns 75 percent of the costs for infrastructure repairs and other disaster-related costs. The state and the local entity then split the remaining 25 percent of the cost, but the state is more than four years behind on paying its share, said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

"Since Jan. 1, 2007, we have had 23 presidential disaster declarations and five emergency declarations from the president," Ashwood said. "That is unprecedented.

"It's obvious in the budgeting process that no one could have predicted that many disasters."

Oklahoma set a national record with nine presidential declarations in 2007, when the state was pummeled by severe ice storms, tornadoes and flooding. More than $10 million of the state costs are from that year alone.

Of the $36 million backlog, about $20 million is to reimburse electric cooperatives for infrastructure damage to power lines and utility poles during major ice storms in 2007 and 2010.

Sid Sperry, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, said his members have been warned that because of state budget constraints, it's likely the state will be significantly delayed in reimbursing them.

"This is just a product of the environment we live in today," Sperry said. "We seem to be a mixing bowl that has a recipe for disaster, from ice storms to wildfires to snowstorms and severe thunderstorms and tornadoes."

Ashwood said the $16 million owed to cities, towns and counties is a priority above the electric cooperatives, and Sperry said his members understand that.

"That's not a problem," Sperry said. "We know there are a lot of other entities out there that are hurting."

The fund currently has a balance of $944, according to the governor's office.

Meanwhile, the state is expected to incur more costs as a result of an ongoing drought and a blistering heat wave that has been blamed for 16 heat-related deaths so far this year.

Although recent thunderstorms have provided some much-needed rain to much of the state, about two-thirds of Oklahoma remains locked in the most severe category of "exceptional drought," according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Fallin said because of the cooler weather and recent rains, she expects to announce in the next day or two changes to the statewide burn ban that is in effect for the state's 77 counties.

"We understand the burn ban can be a major inconvenience to citizens, but we want to make sure we are putting safety first," Fallin said.

The drought is wreaking havoc on the state's agriculture and livestock industries, and the tinder-dry conditions have helped fuel wildfires that have destroyed an estimated 250,000 acres and more than 150 homes and other structures, said Oklahoma Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese.