Residents ready to rally in Tally

Published January 15, 2007

Rising insurance rates that roil North Suncoast homeowners like no other problem go under the microscope of a special legislative session starting Tuesday.

Pasco County faces coastal storm risk typical of other Florida counties, but it also tops the state in sinkhole claims. That has driven rates to unbearable heights. The problem is so large that a meeting of an activist group Saturday afternoon in New Port Richey drew the attention of a national NBC news crew.

Local lawmakers, particularly state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, call the insurance crisis their most consuming issue. Officials from Pasco and Hernando counties have signed up to lobby lawmakers and their staffers starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

About 100 area homeowners angry over their insurance bills, will pile into buses to rally Tuesday outside the Capitol in Tallahasssee. Hard-hit Hernando residents will ride with County Commissioner Rose Rocco. Both buses are organized by Pasco-based Having Affordable Coverage, which put on Saturday's meeting.

"I never thought I'd become an activist, or get involved in a situation where I'd have to," said HAC rally attendee Imogene Arnold, 75, who moved a year ago from Arizona to Port Richey.

* * *

There's more to all this activity than a rally. Residents and local officials will lobby legislators and their staffs in five-minute meetings, armed with a talking-points paper highlighting sinkhole problems.

For Hernando and Pasco interests, there are three top issues:

- Make sinkhole coverage optional to cut rates, although some officials and homeowners worry it might leave people at risk.

- Pass an "anti-cherry picking" bill to require insurers to offer property insurance if they want to offer other forms of insurance in Florida.

- Repealing part of Senate Bill 1980 passed last May that effectively would force an average rate increase of 56 percent on customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp, which has a third of the Pasco market and the most customers in the state.

Local officials got a crash course in Tallahassee tactics last week inside a small conference room at county offices in New Port Richey. For some, the trip to Tallahassee will mark their first time lobbying state government. Only a few have been inside the Capitol.

Joe Mannion, lobbyist for county government, went as far as detailing which hallways and elevators lead where. He took them through pointers:

Start early.

Do homework to match names and faces of lawmakers.

Be concise.

"It's important to hold to that five minutes, it really is," said Port Richey City Council member Nancy Britton.

"Yeah, that way you won't go past 15 minutes," Mannion said.

Their first meeting will begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday with key lawmakers and staffers. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and possibly Gov. Charlie Crist are later on the schedule.

The local lobbying strategy is particularly important because the Pasco delegation has only newly elected officials on the key insurance committees: Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, and Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon. Fasano and other experienced lawmakers have to influence from the outside.

Rally for change

The rally, however, could be the most high profile event this week. Buses are supposed to arrive chock full of people restless over high insurance rates not to mention hours on the highway.

Group vice president Chris Kowalczyk got more motivation in Thursday's mail: news his wind coverage would go from $2,200 to $4,000, raising his total cost for premiums to $8,700. He has an elevated, 900-square-foot home in Hudson.

He'll definitely be on the bus from New Port Richey, among 51 who agreed to pay $25 a head to ride the bus to the rally. Nearly 60 others will leave from Hernando County. Organizers said buses from elsewhere could lead to a crowd of 500 Tuesday.

HAC members want a lot more done this week than local officials' top priorities. In fact, they have 34 concerns on their list, but will narrow their focus this week to a few items.

After lobbying last week, HAC president Ginny Stevans and others leaders said they were worried that lawmakers would not pass a bill ending insurers' ability to raise rates before filing for state approval. They worried not changing that process would undercut the state's ability to cut rates.

Fuming over his bill, Kowalczyk said, "How in anybody's good name can they charge that? I can't afford it."

David DeCamp can be reached at (727) 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com