State allows safe-home program to lapse
By JIM SAUNDERS
Tallahassee Bureau Chief
After eight hurricanes smashed into Florida in 2004 and 2005, then-Gov. Jeb Bush and other state leaders searched for ways to brace for future storms.
Part of their answer: In 2006, they decided to spend $250 million to provide free home inspections and offer grants to tens of thousands of residents whose houses needed upgrades to withstand hurricane winds.
But three years later, as Florida prepares for Monday’s start of another hurricane season, the program — known as My Safe Florida Home — is about ready to go out of business.
With most of the $250 million spent on inspections and grants, state lawmakers this spring did not set aside money for the program to continue after June 30.
The decision came as lawmakers dealt with a $6 billion budget shortfall that forced them to scramble to pay for basics such as public schools and health care.
My Safe Florida Home supporters tried to find other ways to fund the program, including lobbying for a proposal to tap money from the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
But the proposals died at the end of the annual legislative session.
"I tried everything I could to keep the program alive," said Rep. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican who represents part of western Volusia County and is heavily involved in property insurance issues.
Many insurance industry officials and state leaders have long argued that upgrading homes with storm shutters, new garage doors and other improvements is crucial to dealing with hurricane threats — and high property insurance rates.
"It’s the only thing that we know that’s actually going to prevent the devastation that comes from these hurricanes," said Jose Gonzalez, a vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, an influential business group that lobbies on insurance issues.
Bush and lawmakers tried to address the issue in 2006 by setting up My Safe Florida Home at a time when the state was flush with tax dollars. The program was given three years to provide inspections and offer matching grants of as much as $5,000 to homeowners who wanted to make repairs.
The program has provided free inspections to almost 401,000 homes statewide, including 7,812 in Volusia County and 1,662 in Flagler County. In many cases, homeowners have been able to use information from the inspections to get discounts on their insurance policies, even before making upgrades.
At the same time, My Safe Florida Home has provided 30,754 grants for home improvements, almost exclusively in coastal areas. That includes 536 grants in Volusia and 61 in Flagler.
Facing a June 30 deadline for using the $250 million, My Safe Florida Home officials continue to send grant money to homeowners.
But the program is expected to end with at least $33 million in unspent money, as thousands of homeowners approved for grants have not moved forward with improvements or have not moved fast enough.
By law, remaining money from the program will go back into the state’s general-revenue fund at the June 30 end of the fiscal year.
State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose department runs My Safe Florida Home, asked lawmakers to allow the program to keep half of the remaining money so it could continue operating after June 30.
"In these challenging economic times, a renewed commitment to hardening homes against hurricanes with the My Safe Florida Home program is a smart investment for Florida," Sink wrote to legislative leaders late in the session.
But with the state budget problems largely caused by a lack of general-revenue money, the Legislature did not go along. Program supporters say the end of funding is a setback, but they also acknowledged the financial problems facing the state.
"We think it (My Safe Florida Home) is an important part of reducing insurance premiums over the long term," said William Stander, a Tallahassee-based official of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. "We recognize the Legislature had to make some tough decisions this year with the budget, but we’re hopeful when the economy turns around, they will see fit to revive the funding."
Hays and other lawmakers pitched an alternative that would have continued the program by using a portion of money that Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will start receiving next year from rate increases.
Citizens insures about 1 million homes, with heavy concentrations in coastal counties. Hays said money for My Safe Florida Home could have gone back into helping Citizens policyholders improve their houses to reduce potential hurricane damage.
But Gov. Charlie Crist and Citizens officials opposed diverting money from Citizens to fund the program.
Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the governor’s office was concerned about using money that Citizens customers thought they were paying to cover claims. He gave an example of a customer who might pay $2,000 in annual premiums.
"As a policyholder, you’re expecting that $2,000 to be applied to any damage to your house," Ivey said.
Citizens Property Insurance, meanwhile, told lawmakers it needed the money to prepare to pay claims. The state-backed program is widely believed to face potential shortfalls if a major hurricane hits.
"They just needed every dollar they could muster up for claims," said Rep. Bryan Nelson, an Apopka Republican who sponsored a major insurance bill that will lead to the Citizens rate increases.
Are You Ready?
With the 2009 hurricane season starting Monday, a new poll shows many residents are not prepared. Here are some of the findings of the poll of 1,100 people in Florida and other states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts:
· 83 percent said they hadn’t taken steps to make their homes more structurally sound since last hurricane season.
· 66 percent said they didn’t have a hurricane-survival kit.
· 62 percent said they don’t feel vulnerable or feel "not too" vulnerable to hurricane damage or related tornadoes or flooding.
· 55 percent said they didn’t have a family disaster plan in case a serious hurricane threatens the area where they live.
SOURCE: Mason Dixon Polling & Research poll conducted between May 6 and May 11 as part of the National Hurricane Survival Initiative. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percent. Link to National Hurricane Survival Initiative: hurricanesafety.org.