Sinkhole option leaves residents leery

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  December 19, 2006

NEW PORT RICHEY - Sylvie Nevenkin has a 1,500-square-foot home in Port Richey. She also has a whopping $5,500 premium from state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

What she doesn't have: much confidence in the Citizens plan to make sinkhole coverage optional.

Without a better idea of what actually would be covered, the risk could be too great, Nevenko said during a public hearing Monday evening in New Port Richey.

If customers don't buy sinkhole coverage, Citizens would cover only catastrophic collapses of at least 5 feet within seven days.

"I want to know what the definition of a sinkhole is," she said, "or otherwise, I want a shovel so I can dig that last half a foot out."

Citizens wants to eliminate sinkhole coverage as part of standard policies in March. Customers could buy additional coverage for sinkhole claims. If they don't, their policy would cover only collapses that leave a home uninhabitable.

The state's Office of Insurance Regulation held a hearing Monday at Spartan Manor to gather public comment on the proposal. More than 100 people showed up to voice their concerns.

Among them: Those who buy sinkhole coverage would likely see their premiums go up, because Citizens would be spreading the risk among fewer customers.

"Now, policyholders will have a choice if they feel they are susceptible to sinkholes," said Paul Ericksen, a consultant for Citizens. "Choice is good. It empowers the policyholder."

Effective Jan. 1, the changes would drop homeowners' bills by 47.8 percent in coastal Pasco and 58 percent in the rest of the county. Homeowners in coastal Hernando County would see their bills drop 45 percent and decrease nearly as much elsewhere in the county.

Those decreases take into account a 25 percent rate increase slated for Jan. 1. Citizens deputy executive director Susanne Murphy said the insurer needs approval by the end of this month to put the new changes in place.

Along with area lawmakers, Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty called the proposal "innovative."

But lawyer Tim Volpe and actuary Allan Schwartz, who were hired by Pasco County to analyze rates, said the savings should be more. Schwartz said the cuts could be 20 to 45 percent more, depending on the policy terms.

They said Citizens is trying to set rates based on its belief that rates are actually too low in Pasco. Instead of applying approved rates, Citizens used the higher rates suggested by its own studies.

Under their findings, Citizens will end up collecting $22-million more statewide - effectively a 3.7 percent increase - once all of the changes go into effect next year.

But Volpe also took issue with Citizens' proposal for collapse coverage. The proposal limits coverage to losses from collapses of at least 5 feet within seven days. Volpe called it "arbitrary." He said it should be based on whether a home is condemned.

Because of that issue, state Sen. Mike Fasano and state Rep. John Legg have removed the 5-foot, seven-day requirement from a draft bill that would allow private insurers to make sinkhole coverage optional, too, Fasano said Monday.

Yet some residents said they feared mortgage lenders won't let them drop sinkhole coverage.

Bank of America and the Florida Bankers Association support the proposal, but their representatives said customers need to talk to their lenders. Some smaller banks have indicated reluctance to issue mortgages without sinkhole coverage in place. Federal lenders like Fannie Mae do not typically require sinkhole coverage.

"That's one bank," said Ginny Stevans, president of Homeowners Against Citizens. "That's not my bank."