CFO candidate talks about BP claims


PANAMA CITY — CFO candidate and Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater said Thursday that the oil claims process should work for local businesses and governments, not against it.

Claims adjusters are “not going to second guess” county commissions, city officials and others who spent what they thought was appropriate to protect their beaches during the oil spill, Atwater added.

“We don’t need the same engineers who couldn’t figure out how to plug the hole … now looking at the design of the defense,” Atwater said.

Those statements, made during an informal community meeting at the Harrison/Rivard law offices in down-town Panama City, were likely words of comfort to several county commissioners who were present.

The county spent more than $6 million on a gated boom for St. Andrew Pass, the Phillips Inlet/Lake Powell project, hotline costs at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, Tourist Development Council coastal engineering on the beach protection plan and other issues. However, the county has only received $3.1 million from BP so far.

Atwater also supported the idea of two claims processes, one for private citizens and business and one for government entities. A second claims line would hopefully mean that private entities got their money quicker, Atwater said.

“We (governments) don’t want to be standing in front of them in line,” he said.

Claims adjusters, whether from BP or the new Deepwater Horizon Compensation Fund being headed by Kenneth Feinberg, will also have to deal with the long-term effects of the spill.

“It wasn’t just what we lost in July and August,” Atwater said. “We don’t even know the long-term ramifications of this yet.”

Visitors who chose to go somewhere else this year may go there again next year instead of coming back to local beaches, Atwater said.

He added that BP also will have to be held responsible for losses to “the public treasury,” tax money that would have arrived through a busy tourist season did not show up this year. While he hoped those issues could be worked out without a lawsuit, Atwater said the state is prepared to sue.

After the session ended, Atwater promised that as CFO he would make sure every contract was scrutinized and that taxpayers got to keep more of their money.

“We don’t need to run a bigger government,” he said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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