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Insurance idea helps owners who fortify

A state reform committee focuses on a program that will give most Florida homeowners matching funds to strengthen their homes against storms.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published August 9, 2006


A state panel charged with finding solutions to Florida's rapidly spreading property insurance crisis didn't take long in its first meeting Tuesday to zero in on who should shoulder a big part of the effort: property owners.

A program that would give most Florida homeowners up to $5,000 in matching funds to strengthen their homes against hurricanes emerged as the central topic at a four-hour meeting in Tallahassee of Gov. Jeb Bush's property and casualty insurance reform committee. As the height of the hurricane season approaches, state regulators are pushing hard to have inspectors and contractors ready to go to work within the next few weeks.

The committee, created by Bush in June, is chaired by Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, and its 15 members were appointed by the governor.

As the panel heard testimony from Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. executive director Bob Ricker and others, committee members focused their energy on what's known as the Florida Comprehensive Hurricane Damage Mitigation Program.

The program, the first of its kind in the nation, was created by the 2006 Legislature as part of an insurance-reform package. It provides $242.5-million over three years to help residents make their homes more windstorm-resistant by doing such things as reinforcing roof-to-wall connections and adding storm shutters.

"The biggest problem is a hurricane crisis," said Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, "and the Damage Mitigation Program is one of the few lasting things we can do."

Brown suggested the committee consider re-funding the program with a "recurring appropriation."

Administered by the Department of Financial Services, or DFS, the program will offer up to $5,000 in matching funds for any resident who applies and is approved.

Among the conditions: The insured value of the home cannot exceed $500,000 and it must serve as a primary residence.

Mobile homes, manufactured homes, second homes, rental properties, apartments and businesses are not eligible.

Also, the grants do not apply to work done before the program's inception.

The program is expected to begin within the next week to 10 days, when the state will start distributing inspection applications. The applications will be available online at www.mysafefloridahome.com or by calling toll-free 1-800-342-2762.

"We are correcting glitches in the technology we are using," said DFS spokeswoman Tami Torres, "to help efficiently handle thousands of requests."

As of this week, at least 16,000 people had contacted the department expressing interest in the program.

Committee members also praised the $250-million the state set aside earlier this year to lure more insurance companies into the state by offering loans of up to $25-million.

But other issues remain.

"Our homes are hardened, but our jobs are going to Georgia," said McCarty, the insurance commissioner, referring to the upheaval in the commercial insurance industry. McCarty hopes to have a plan to revive the state reinsurance pool for businesses ready for Cabinet approval next week.

But again, Tuesday's spotlight was on what the state or the public sector - not the insurance industry - should do. The widespread practice of national insurance companies isolating their Florida business into a separate company - so-called pup companies - in order to insulate the parent company from losses was not addressed.

The reform committee will meet again Aug. 24 in Orlando and will hear public testimony for the first time. It is scheduled to issue its first report no later than Nov. 15.

"Our charge is to put Citizens out of business and have reasonable rates and availability," Jennings said. "So everybody, put your thinking caps on."

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or 727 893-8247.

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 22:31:48]


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