Finally, a victory for the homeowners.
Rather than approve a 25.9 percent rate increase the insurer had sought, Florida insurance regulators ordered Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run pool, to drop its rates in Monroe County more than 32 percent this year, according to a statement from the Office of Insurance Regulation.
It was unclear late Thursday exactly what the new rate would be, and OIR did not return phone calls seeking clarification. But for homeowners in the Keys, who were paying the highest insurance rates in the state, the order meant that their rates would be more similar to what Miami-Dade and Broward homeowners pay.
Mobile-home owners in Monroe also won a break: Rather the the 20.4 percent increase Citizens requested, it was allowed a 15.2 percent rise in rates.
This action ''sends a message that we can't continue these unjustifiable rate hikes,'' said Donna Moody, one of the Key West residents who helped organize a consumer group earlier this year that has fought aggressively for more scrutiny of Citizens' rates and the increases the insurer has sought.
''We were successful in the Keys. We're hoping this sets a precedent in other counties,'' added Moody. ``Just because it's a state-run insurance company, you can still fight it.''
FIRM -- Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe -- has more than 5,000 members throughout the Keys and has raised more than $50,000 in its fight against Citizens.
FIRM's effort has been backed by the Monroe County Commission as well as mayors of Key West, Key Largo and other cities.
FIRM members made three trips to Tallahassee in the spring, meeting with Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, Citizens officials, legislators and the Cabinet.
''Many Floridians are struggling to pay rapidly rising hurricane insurance costs, and perhaps none more so than those living in Monroe County,'' said McCarty in the statement. ``We will continue to aggressively scrutinize all rate requests, and where we find that rates are not justified we will not allow them.''
State law requires Citizens to have rates higher than those offered by private companies in a given area, but regulators found that there weren't private companies willing to sell insurance in the Keys. Therefore, rates in the Keys are only required to be actuarially sound, OIR said.
McCarty's orders on the homeowners and mobile-home rates were based on the state's new public hurricane model, which insurers and regulators can use to predict losses in a major storm.
This model, developed with state funds, discloses the information it uses to base its rates. The private ones used by most insurers do not.
Timothy Volpe, a Jacksonville attorney who represented Monroe residents at a public hearing in Key West two weeks ago, said the new OIR order eliminates some of the rate disparity between Monroe and other coastal areas of South Florida, but there are still disparities with the Panhandle and parts of the state.
Citizens still has to file data to support the rate decrease that was ordered Thursday. It also has 21 days to appeal this order. Rocky Scott, a spokesman for Citizens, said the insurer had no comment on the OIR order Thursday.
Heather Carruthers, another FIRM member, said the group's work is far from done. FIRM will mount a fight if Citizens appeals McCarty's rate decrease order, she said.
Long-term, Carruthers said, the group would like to mount an education program so consumers can better protect their homes against future storms.