Insurance industry's sinkhole hypocrisy will hurt Florida's economy

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By C.T,Bowen
Published November 7, 2011


The home looks like many of the others in the Seven Hills development. Built by Rutenberg Construction Co. in 1989, it features 2,300 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, two baths, a caged swimming pool overlooking the golf course fairway in back and minor cracks in the driveway leading to the cul-de-sac out front.

The driveway imperfections are cosmetic, not catastrophic. An April 2010 sinkhole inspection determined no problems on the property when the owners switched to Citizens Insurance after State Farm jacked their annual premium to $6,000.

But a few months ago, owners Rick and Jana Murphy relocated to Meritt Island and decided to rent out their house. Citizens required them to cancel their existing policy and obtain new coverage for rental property. That meant yet another on-site investigation for evidence of sinkhole activity.

"Home is in great shape,'' reads the most recent inspection report prepared for Citizens.

Not great enough. Citing, among other things, the driveway cracks who doesn't have those? Citizens declined to underwrite sinkhole insurance.

"Every house has cracks in the driveway. I was just shocked,'' said Jana Murphy, an attorney and former in-house counsel for the Hernando Clerk of the Court's Office. "It was just absolute garbage what they were doing to me.''

So what happened between the spring of 2010 and the summer of 2011? Nothing to the house, but everything to the insurance market.

The Legislature approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 408. Under the misplaced moniker of "reform,'' this anti-consumer law greased the skids for private insurance companies to raise their rates and allowed Citizens to remove the cap on its own sinkhole premiums if it even chooses to underwrite the risk.

"I think the goal of private insurance companies, the goal of Gov. Scott and the goal of some of my colleagues in the Legislature is that sinkhole insurance will be so expensive or so hard to find that homeowners will eventually not be able to buy it,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a leading critic of the legislation.

Fasano's Republican colleagues in the local delegations, incidentally, did not share his view. Reps. Robert Schenck, Will Weatherford, John Legg and Richard Corcoran all voted for the House version of SB 408. Then some of them acted indignantly when Citizens announced it wanted to nearly treble its sinkhole premium prices in parts of Pasco and more than quadruple the cost to $5,700 in coastal Hernando. Corcoran even accompanied the outraged homeowners to the rate hearing in Tampa and got his picture on the front page of this newspaper for the effort. Too bad the retail politicking back home didn't match the voting record in Tallahassee.

Later, Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarthy allowed an average statewide increase of 32 percent.

In the case of the Murphys, Citizens eventually reversed course and agreed to provide coverage after Fasano intervened on their behalf. Jana Murphy, however, worries about the long-term implications on Hernando and Pasco counties.

"That economy and that market is just going to be devastated by this bill,'' she said.

Indeed. Unavailability of adequate insurance will kill real estate transactions. What good is a lower impact fee if the guy buying the new house can't qualify for a loan because nobody will provide affordable sinkhole insurance?

Going without coverage is a substantial risk. Two weeks ago, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek told legislators there had been 1,232 sinkhole claims filed in Hernando this year, compared to 877 in 2010, and the reduced property values attributed to the claims had knocked $283 million off the tax rolls.

Think of Pasco County's own costly history. The county is suing an engineering firm over a reclaimed water reservoir project in Land O'Lakes that ended up costing $8 million more than expected because of sinkholes.

Clearly, though, the public is not blameless. Citizens paid out $250 million in sinkhole claims last year while collecting only $32 million in premiums and Mazourek said only 57 percent of the claimants in Hernando had used their insurance money to fix the sinkholes.

Still, making sinkhole coverage unaffordable to the masses is not a legitimate answer and the Murphys' case illustrates the hypocrisy of the insurance industry.

Try filing an insurance claim simply because your driveway is cracked and the adjuster is likely to identify the cause as routine ground settling.

Now, try buying insurance on a house with a cracked driveway and the home office has a new answer:

Coverage denied because of the potential for a sinkhole.