Consumer eViews
FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER ALEX SINK'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 4, Number 5, February 2, 2007

Dear Floridian:

Today I personally toured the damage left by tornados that struck Central Florida early Friday morning. My heart goes out to the victims and it is truly tragic that residents in this area faced a similar storm just a little over a month ago.

We each must do all we can to make sure our families are prepared for disaster. Perhaps more than any other state in recent years, Floridians have been forced to prepare for the worst. Here are some suggestions on how to begin:

  • Make sure your property insurance coverage is enough to protect your family or your business. Review your coverage annually and advise your agent of any additions or upgrades to your home or business.

  • Make sure you understand what your coverage includes. Too many of us do not read our policies, and the worst time to learn what is covered and what is not is when you need coverage.

  • Sit down with your family and make a disaster plan. This needs to include placing important documents in a waterproof container in a place where others know where to find it, but also keeping copies in another location away from your home or business. Agree on where to meet if your family gets separated, and let someone else – a family or a friend who lives somewhere else – know what your plans are.

While, unlike a hurricane, there may be little or no warning that a tornado is coming, there are steps we can take to prepare for disaster. Please take a moment to reflect on the families and communities affected by last night’s storm, and then do all you can to protect yourself.


--
Alex Sink


CFO SINK, TOURING STORM-HIT AREA, PROVIDES UPDATE ON SEARCH EFFORTS, LOCATION OF CONSUMER ASSISTANCE SITES

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Alex Sink, who Friday afternoon toured the storm-ravaged Central Florida area with Governor Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, said search and rescue crews are reporting they have completed a primary search of impacted areas and are now conducting secondary searches.

CFO Sink also said that the Department of Financial Services, Division of Consumer Services, is now traveling into the area to set up mobile consumer assistance units in The Villages, Lady Lake, DeLand and Port Orange and expects to have those operating by 8 a.m. Saturday, and will be open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. The department’s storm hotline, 1-800-22-STORM (1-800-227-8676) will remain in operation on Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“The damage is widespread and significant,” CFO Sink reported as she toured the area. “But our department is geared up to respond to this kind of devastation and we will be there for as long as it takes to make sure these storm victims get the help they need.”

The State Fire Marshal's office, which coordinates search and rescue and fire operations when the state’s Emergency Operations Center is activated, will continue to monitor recovery efforts and support local agencies, CFO Sink said. In the meantime, she said consumer service specialists have been cleared to move in and are en route to the area to set up mobile assistance units in the following locations:

Lowe’s
1751 Dunlawton Avenue
Port Orange

The Laurel Manor Recreation Center
Highway 466 and Buena Vista Boulevard
The Villages

Villages Elementary School
695 Rolling Acres Road
Lady Lake

Victoria Square
South Woodland Blvd.
State Road 17-92 and County Road 15A
DeLand

A Paisley site is expected to be located on Saturday.

Consumer specialists from the Department of Financial Services who will staff the mobile consumer assistance units will assist consumers with contacting their insurance companies and getting insurance claims filed. Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will have representatives at each site, and other insurance companies are expected to join.


CFO SINK ANNOUNCES STORM LINE ACTIVATED, DFS AND STATE FIRE MARSHAL’S OFFICE COORDINATING ASSISTANCE 

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is urging Central Florida residents whose homes or businesses were damaged overnight by powerful storms to call the Department of Financial Services’ storm hotline at 1-800-22-STORM (1-800-227-8676) if they have questions regarding steps to take to immediately protect their homes or need help filing an insurance claim. 

The storm line was activated early this morning after a powerful storm system suspected of spawning tornadoes struck Sumter, Lake, Volusia, and Seminole counties and parts of Flagler County.  This is the second storm with tornadic winds to strike the area in two months. 

“My heart is breaking for our citizens in those counties,” said CFO Sink, who also serves as State Fire Marshal.  “We have resources available on the phone and on the ground and will do all we can to help these residents and communities get back on their feet quickly. 

CFO Sink is urging all Floridians to stay tuned to weather announcements and heed any warnings or watches that may be issued.   

The State Fire Marshal’s Office is responsible for coordinating search and rescue and fire operations at the state’s Emergency Operations Center and has teams in those counties now.  The Department of Financial Services, which CFO Sink oversees, later today will also announce locations for consumer assistance sites to be located in those counties. Sink recommends that property owners take the following actions if they suffered damage:

  • Stay away from downed power lines.
  • If safe, make emergency repairs to protect from further damage; document the damage and repairs in writing and with receipts and photos.
  • Immediately report property damage to your insurance agent and company.
  • Gather copies of your household inventory and other documentation, including photos.  This will assist the adjuster in assessing the value of the destroyed property.
  • If you must leave your home because of the damage, let your agent or insurance company know your temporary forwarding address and phone number.
  • Beware of fly-by-night repair businesses. Hire licensed and reputable service people. 
  • If considering the assistance of a public insurance adjuster, verify that they are licensed by calling the department’s storm hotline.
  • Be sure you understand how much a public insurance adjuster is charging and what services are included before signing any contract.
  • Use generators in well-ventilated outside areas, never indoors or in a garage or carport.

CFO Sink also reminds residents that because of the declaration of emergency that has been issued, the maximum fee that public adjusters can charge for storm victims in counties named in the order is capped at 10 percent of the claim payment.   Furthermore, public adjusters are prohibited from demanding or accepting any type of advance fees, retainers, or other compensation prior to any payment being made on the claim. 

A new rule, which went into effect on September 3, 2006, triggers these consumer protections when the governor declares a state of emergency.  Under the new rule, the fee cap will not expire for tornado victims regardless of when they may enter into a public adjuster contract for a claim related to damages sustained from the storm. 

Public adjusters are not affiliated with any insurance company and are hired by the consumer for a fee which is usually stated as a percentage of the claim payment the public adjuster is responsible for recovering.  Independent and company adjusters work for insurance companies and do not charge fees to consumers. 

Consumers should make sure they are dealing with a licensed public adjuster by calling the storm hotline or by logging on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com to verify licensure of any adjuster, and should also read and understand any contract before signing. 

The department has activated its storm hotline, 1-800-22-STORM (1-800-227-8676), to help storm victims with questions or complaints they may have with filing an insurance claim.


 


CFO SINK ENCOURAGES FLORIDIANS TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE EARNED INCOME TAX CREDIT (EITC)
An estimated 350,000 working Floridians believed to be eligible

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is urging Florida taxpayers to check if they may qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a special federal tax credit for low-income working individuals and families. Eligible Floridians could get back thousands of dollars in tax relief on top of what they may already be claiming.

The EITC helps taxpayers whose incomes are below $38,348 for families with two or more children, $34,001 for individuals with one child and $14,120 for individuals who have no children.

“Every year, millions of dollars in tax relief are forfeited because eligible Americans fail to claim their share of the Earned Income Tax Credit,” said CFO Sink. “This is money that could be used to pay down debt, make a down payment on a home, or open a college fund.

At today’s Cabinet meeting, Sink presented a resolution naming February 1, 2007, Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day in Florida.

“This is the taxpayers’ money; it doesn’t belong to the government,” said CFO Sink. “We’re doing everything we can to help put money back in the hands of eligible, hard-working taxpayers so they can take advantage of Florida’s boundless opportunities.”

According to the Internal Revenue Service’s Web site, taxpayers must meet certain requirements to qualify and must file a tax return, even if they did not earn enough money to be obligated to file a tax return. In addition to filing an EITC claim for the most recent tax year, Floridians can go back three years to claim prior refunds for which they were eligible. Further, the IRS Web site states that in most cases, EITC payments will not be used to determine eligibility for most assistance programs, including Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps. Consumers can visit http://www.irs.gov/ and search “Earned Income Tax Credit” to find out more about the tax credit and determine if they qualify.

There are many free tax preparation sites throughout Florida. To find the nearest free tax assistance site, call 1-800-829-1040.


CFO SINK ANNOUNCES FIRST MEETING OF THE WINDSTORM MITIGATION STUDY COMMITTEE

In effort to expand and improve hurricane mitigation efforts in Florida, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink announced today that the legislatively-created Windstorm Mitigation Study Committee will hold its first meeting on Thursday, February 8, 2007, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Room 221 of the Senate Office Building in Tallahassee.   

The committee was created as a result of House Bill 1A, passed recently by the Florida Legislature during Special Session.  The committee is comprised of eight members, with two appointments each from the Governor, Chief Financial Officer, Senate President and Speaker of the House.  The committee is charged with analyzing short- and long-term solutions and programs that address the need to immediately and effectively mitigate homes in Florida.   

A final committee report, including legislative recommendations, is due to the Governor, Chief Financial Officer, Insurance Commissioner, Senate President and Speaker of the House by March 6, 2007.  Floridians can learn more about the committee, its duties and upcoming meetings at http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/WindstormMSC/. Floridians interested in hurricane mitigation are encouraged to attend the meetings. 

The first meeting of the Windstorm Mitigation Study Committee will be held:

DATE:            Thursday, February 8, 2007
TIME:             9:00 AM- 3:00 PM
LOCATION:    Room 221, Senate Office Building
                     Tallahassee


SINK ANNOUNCES DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink Wednesday announced the appointment of Michael Carlson as her Director of Legislative Affairs, effective February 8, 2007. 

“I’m pleased to announce that Mr. Carlson has agreed to lead our Legislative Affairs team,” said CFO Sink.  “His legal experience and knowledge of state government will be an asset to the Department of Financial Services and the people of Florida.”

As Director of Legislative Affairs, Mr. Carlson will promote the passage of legislative issues on behalf of the Chief Financial Officer; effectively lobby the Legislature on issues pertaining to the department; and provide assistance to legislators, their staff and constituents on a number of financial and insurance-related issues.

Mr. Carlson joins the Department of Financial Services from the House of Representatives, where he was the Staff Director for the House Committee on Insurance.   Mr. Carlson has also served as Staff Director of the Economic Development, Trade and Banking Committee and as Committee Attorney for the Committees on Education and Judiciary.   He is a graduate of Florida State University’s College of Law.


FLORIDA CABINET MET TUESDAY, JANUARY 30

At Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink presented two resolutions -- one in appreciation of retiring state employee Hamilton “Buck” Oven, and one to help spread the word about the Earned Income Tax Credit available to low-income workers through the IRS. Read the Resolutions.

Buck was formally recognized for his many years of service to the citizens of Florida.  One of Buck’s many outstanding accomplishments during his career was his personal effort to ensure the certification of more than 25,000 megawatts of electrical generation, representing more than 45 percent of Florida’s energy generation capacity. He also administered the certification of more than eleven percent of Florida’s electric transmission line capacity through the Power Plant Siting Act. Members of Buck’s family looked on as he was recognized. 

One of the CFO’s roles as a Cabinet Officer is to serve as agency head of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.  At the January 30, 2007 Cabinet Meeting, the CFO voted on a variety of items that ranged from approving the appointment of doctors to the DHSMV Medical Advisory Board to adopting rules governing the suspension of driver licenses for those convicted of DUI and the implementation of breath alcohol ignition interlock devices, which are installed on vehicles for those convicted of multiple DUI offenses.     


CAPE CORAL HOMEOWNER FACES ARSON CHARGE

A Cape Coral man is facing felony charges stemming from the suspicion that he set his home on fire. The arrest, following an investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigation, found the man had already cashed a $5,000 advance check from his homeowners insurance policy at the time of the arrest.

“Arson is more than a financial crime, it is a violent crime that kills and injures innocent citizens and firefighters every year,” said State Fire Marshal Alex Sink, who also is Florida’s chief financial officer. “We will take action against anyone we believe may have committed such a crime.”

Homeowner Carlos R Veloz-Lao told arson detectives that on December 9, 2006, he was alone and cooking at his NE 20th Court home when a friend dropped by and he went out to talk for about 30 minutes. It was after that, he told detectives, that he saw the house on fire. Veloz-Lao could only provide the first name of the friend and said he had no contact information.

The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigation was called by the Cape Coral Fire Department to determine the origin and cause of the fire. The investigation involved on-scene investigation and forensic testing that revealed the fire had been set.

Veloz-Lao is charged with first-degree arson, burning to defraud and grand theft. He filed his claim with American Strategic Insurance Corp. If convicted on all of the charges, Veloz-Lao could be sentenced up to 40 years in prison.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office last year distributed a video to fire, police and sheriff’s departments throughout Florida to help detectives better investigate suspected kitchen fires.

The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations is a law enforcement branch of the Division of State Fire Marshal that assists other state and local fire and law enforcement agencies in the investigation of fires of suspicious origin. Anyone with information about this case or any incident of fire is asked to call 1-877-662-7766 (1-877-NOARSON).


Consumer Services HelpLine (800) 342-2762

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