Task Force Talks of Seeking Big Payment from BP — Now

TALLAHASSEE — Members of a state task force said Wednesday that Florida should demand $500 million or more immediately from British Petroleum and take over the process of distributing dollars to boat captains, hotels and local governments hurt by the massive Gulf oil spill.

The oil spill has cost BP more than $1 billion so far with the company pledging to give Florida $75 million for clean-up and tourism advertising. But at the first meeting of Florida’s Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force some members said they feared the Deepwater Horizon disaster could cripple the company, jeopardizing cash flowing to damaged gulf states.

“I believe this company is in serious economic trouble,” said Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer and task force member.

“I think we need to get that money, in our hands, a very large amount, as soon as possible,” he added. “We haven’t even begun to see the impact of June, July and August on the Panhandle.”

Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, also said BP’s approach of offering payments to Florida in $25 million increments – the latest announced Tuesday – “isn’t cutting it.”

“We’re putting them in the driver’s seat to determine what is a legitimate claim or not – I don’t think that’s a position we want to be in,” Horner said. “I’d rather see the state be more aggressive….Let’s get the dollars up front before they find another shield to hide behind.”

Horner said the anticipated damage to Florida’s tourism and fisheries industries warranted the state to demand that when BP makes payments to Florida, “they put a few more zeroes on it.” Other task force members, including Gov. Charlie Crist’s budget director, Jerry McDaniel, said the spill’s cost will further drain government services already besieged by the state’s still-fragile economy.

“School budgets are going to take a hit, along with all of the state budget,” McDaniel said, citing a likely decline in property-tax dollars and sales-tax revenue.

While frustration with BP was evident among task force members, not all agreed with the push for a major lump-sum payment. Bill Stewart, Attorney General Bill McCollum’s deputy chief of staff, said BP has acknowledged it has not set aside reserves to cover payments stemming from the spill – making such one-time handouts unlikely.

BP, however, last week reported that it had generated $30 billion in cash flow over the last four quarters and insisted it can cover all claims. Estimates as to how much the spill may ultimately cost have ranged to as much as $40 billion, although that amount would likely be paid over several years.

Stewart’s boss McCollum, the leading Republican candidate for governor, on Tuesday directed the bulk of his criticism at the Obama administration for a poor cleanup response in the Gulf region. Stewart also cautioned Florida officials against seeking to take on settling claims for those whose livelihoods have been hurt by the spill – saying that, like BP, the state would have to outsource such work.

“We should at least give BP the opportunity to succeed with what they are doing,” Stewart said.

BP has opened 10 claims offices along Panhandle counties and Monroe County and has received 9,119 claims from Florida businesses and workers seeking to recover money lost because of the spill. The company has paid $6.6 million so far, officials said.

But task force members – who include a charter boat captain, a restaurateur, and Panhandle tourism representatives – said many of those hurt by the spill have struggled with complexity and delays in making claims. Many of the boat deckhands, oyster shuckers and hotel workers who have lost jobs are daunted by trying to produce the records and receipts needed to make claims, members said.

“A lot of boat captains scrabble around the dashboard of their boats for money to pay bills,” said Bob Zales, a Panama City charterboat owner. “Unless you get money in their hands, a lot of them are not going to be there any more.”

Several on the task force said BP should send company representatives to Panhandle docks to assist fish-house and boat workers with making their claims. A BP director attending Wednesday’s meeting, Paula Barnett, acknowledged, “There’s room for improvement,” with the company’s claims process.

But, she said, “We’re getting around to where we need to be in the state of Florida.”

Crist opened the meeting by telling members that his administration “will make sure these claims are processed more rapidly and that some of these larger claims are addressed appropriately sooner, rather than later.”

Crist also said the prospect of the state suing BP remained a possibility.

“I’m leaving all options open,” he said.

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