Volume 6 Number 17 April 24, 2009
This week, I worked to provide more help to Florida’s homeowners and Florida’s seniors.
On Monday we took an important step in helping Floridians avoid foreclosures by bringing lawyers and lenders to the table -- literally. I moderated a roundtable discussion with lawyers who have volunteered their time with the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes program and representatives from eight of Florida’s top lenders. At this meeting, we were able to develop solutions that will provide for better cooperation and negotiation between the lawyers and lenders, hopefully making it so that more Floridians are able to avoid foreclosure.
And yesterday I talked with Pensacola seniors at the Bayview Senior Center about the work I am doing to protect seniors from financial fraud, including the importance of tougher penalties for agents who defraud senior investors. I also listened to their concerns, including learning about other schemes affecting them and their friends.
Please know that I will continue to work on finding real solutions to the problems facing Floridians, remembering that these solutions don’t always require a new law…they just require someone looking for tangible ways to get results.
Chief Financial Officer
State of Florida
Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink brought together top Florida lenders and lawyers with the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes program today in Tampa during a roundtable discussion focused on keeping more Floridians in their homes. At the Protecting Florida’s Homeowner’s Roundtable, moderated by CFO Sink, top lenders and volunteer lawyers developed solutions for better communication and negotiation, as they work to ease some of the challenges facing Floridians who struggle to pay their mortgages and face the threat of foreclosure.
“As we are all aware, for a number of years Florida has been ground zero for the housing crisis faced by our country,” said CFO Sink. “That’s why I have worked to find avenues to provide real, tangible help to Floridians facing the threat of foreclosure. I hope today’s discussion serves as a foundation for increased cooperation between lawyers and lenders who want to keep more Floridians in their homes and more Floridians paying their mortgages on-time.”
The roundtable gave lenders and pro bono lawyers the chance to discuss how to improve their communication and interaction, as they work together to help Floridians facing the threat of foreclosure. They also discussed how the new homeowner assistance plan from the Obama Administration affects their work moving forward.
Lenders represented at today’s roundtable included: Bank of America and Countrywide, IndyMac Bank, JP Morgan Chase and Washington Mutual, Saxon Mortgage Services, Wachovia and Wells Fargo, and SunTrust Bank.
CFO Sink plans to monitor progress from the roundtable discussion, following up with Florida Attorneys Saving Homes lawyers and Florida lenders on discussed action items, such as:
In 2007, CFO Sink reached out to the Florida Bar and asked that they provide assistance to struggling homeowners in the state, and the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes program was created. The program pairs pro bono attorneys with Florida homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments, to help these homeowners try to find solutions with their lenders. Over 1,000 lawyers across the state have volunteered their time in response to CFO Sink’s call to launch this program.
In addition to the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes Program, CFO Sink has also launched the Florida Housing Help Initiative to assist homeowners facing foreclosure. The initiative partners with community organizations and elected officials to hold foreclosure workshops around the state, and nearly 1,000 families have already attended these events. For more information on CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help Initiative or the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes program, visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com.
On Thursday, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink toured the Bayview Senior Center in Pensacola, where she spoke to seniors participating in activities at the center about financial challenges facing Florida’s seniors. One of CFO Sink’s top priorities in office has been to create ways to offer seniors better financial protections and to increase penalties for unscrupulous agents who take advantage of Florida’s seniors.
CFO Sink discussed her Safeguard our Seniors Task Force, which she created to address these challenges, as well as the pending Safeguard our Seniors legislation that would make the act of “twisting” or “churning” the sale of an annuity to a senior consumer a third degree felony under Florida law. She also listened to the concerns of attendees who had been approached by sales agents and heard personal stories from participants who talked about new schemes, such a reverse mortgage problems, that have affected their families and friends. CFO Sink promised to follow up on all of their concerns and to make sure law enforcement officials are aware of any new fraudulent tactics that take advantage of seniors.
To learn more about the Safeguard our Seniors Task Force, visit www.FLSeniors.net. The Department of Financial Services also has outreach coordinators throughout the state who periodically offer presentations on annuity fraud. Senior Floridians who believe they may have been the victim of annuity fraud or would like to schedule an annuity fraud presentation should call 1-877-My-FL-CFO or log on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink believes that small businesses and “serial entrepreneurs” are essential to rebuilding a strong economy in Florida. That’s why this Thursday she took the opportunity to see the success of such a business with her visit to the Andrews Institute in Pensacola. The Andrews Institute has become a world-renowned center for orthopedics and sports medicine in Northwest Florida, and has put the area on the map for musculoskeletal treatments and research. It has also had a positive impact on the local economy: since its inception, the institute has created 150 new jobs, with nearly $10 million in wages, in the highly educated and technical fields of musculoskeletal research and health care. CFO Sink toured the Andrews Institute and spoke to Dr. Joe Story about how the Andrews Institute was able to become a successful small business in Florida.
Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink today released the following statement opposing the near-shore drilling bill (HB 1219) that is scheduled to be voted on by the Florida House of Representatives:
“As Florida’s Chief Financial Officer it is my responsibility to protect the people of Florida and all state owned land, and I take these obligations very seriously. That’s why I strongly oppose the near-shore drilling legislation, which would threaten Florida’s economy by bringing oil rigs 3 miles off our coast, sanctioning drilling in the shallow waters of the Gulf, and allowing unlimited pipelines to go through sensitive areas up to our beaches.
“This controversial near-shore drilling bill puts Florida’s billion dollar tourism, fishery, and marina-related industries at serious risk, and is not in the best interest of Florida. What Florida should do is look for ways to make our state the leader in the new energy economy, instead of making our state even more vulnerable.
“I also think it is unconscionable that a bill that could threaten our economy is being passed at the 11th hour, without any significant debate, serious study, or real time to hear from Florida’s citizens. Floridians deserve to have government in the sunshine -- this bill is government in the dark of night.”
To celebrate Earth Day 2009, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has announced that her Division of Legal Services has qualified as a Partner in the Law Office Climate Challenge sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Department of Financial Services will be the first government agency in Florida to have its legal department qualify for the voluntary partnership, which is specifically designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in law offices.
“As Florida’s fiscal watchdog, I am committed to fiscal responsibility and accountability, as well as environmental stewardship,” said CFO Sink. “By taking these steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we can save taxpayers’ dollars by reducing waste and will also preserve the environment for future generations.”
As part of the qualifications for the ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge, the Legal Services Division will partner with the EPA Energy Star program and will also become the first state office in Florida to become an EPA Waste Wise Partner. These partnerships involves specific steps of best practices for reducing waste, including limiting megawatt hours of electricity and recycling a majority of discarded office papers.
The EPA estimates that if the energy efficiency of commercial and industrial buildings in the U.S. improved 10 percent, Americans would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to those from about 30 million vehicles, and would save roughly $20 billion.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink today announced the arrests of three individuals who allegedly solicited auto body work from elderly victims in parking lots to obtain personal information, then assumed the victims’ identities and filed fraudulent insurance claims totaling approximately $50,000. The arrests underscore the need for better financial protection for Florida’s seniors, which is the top priority of CFO Sink’s “Safeguard our Seniors” initiative.
Upon receiving information from the Nationwide Insurance Company and the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), an investigation by the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF) revealed that approximately 26 fraudulent car crashes involving the suspects were documented in Palm Beach County. Corey Blue Petro, 22, Rickie S. Petro, 42, and Eda Siganoff, 43, have been charged with racketeering, grand theft, fraudulent use of personal identification information and insurance fraud. If convicted, the suspects could face up to 75 years behind bars.
“From annuity fraud to cases like this one, each year my department investigates hundreds of bad actors who prey on seniors to take advantage of them financially,” said CFO Sink. “Better financial protections for Florida’s seniors and tougher consequences for those who defraud our seniors demand our immediate attention and is a priority for me.”
During the last 12 months, CFO Sink’s department has opened nearly 500 administrative cases on financial fraud committed against seniors. She created the Safeguard our Seniors Task Force – www.FLSeniors.net – to develop solutions to better protect Florida seniors from falling victim to financial fraud.
The Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud, a sworn law enforcement agency, made over 800 insurance fraud-related arrests in the last fiscal year. Insurance fraud in Florida has been estimated to cost the average Florida family as much as $1,400 a year. The Department of Insurance Fraud investigates various forms of fraud in insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers' compensation insurance. Depending on the estimated loss amount, the department will pay up to $25,000 for information directly leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information about this or any other suspected insurance fraud is asked to call the department's Fraud Fighters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445 or log on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com/fraud. Complaints can be tracked online.
This week, we received a great tip on how to protect your property from eViews reader Walt Humphrey. He suggested:
If your house, yard improvements, and all personal belongings are blown or washed away, it can be difficult to prove the loss to insurance companies to validate a claim. It can also be difficult to document a casualty loss for an income tax write-off. Avoid the headaches, heartaches, and financial losses by taking photographs of everything. Videotapes help and can be narrated during the process. Store copies in more than one place; say a safe deposit box, and a copy to take with you during evacuation. Digital works best, and also remember to update with major purchases, additions, remodeling, etc.
Many thanks to Mr. Humphrey for the great idea! Homes are often a family’s largest investment, and taking inventory of your personal property and any home improvements is especially important now with storm season just around the corner. Even though it may seem tedious, property documentation is the easiest way for you to be able to show the insurance company proof of your property before a loss, and also saves you the headache of trying to itemize your belongings in the event that they are destroyed. Be sure to keep purchase receipts along with your videotapes and photographs in a safe place, and be sure all documents are dated.
With current anxieties about the stock market and the global economy, we often overlook the importance of a healthy diet, which in turn lowers our household expenses over the long run. With fewer families affording restaurants and long-distance vacations, it is a good time to take stock of your refrigerator and your pantry. After reading Michael Pollan’s best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and watching Michelle Obama plant an organic garden in the White House, Americans are looking more closely at their diet.
No other country in the history of the world has undergone such confusion about what to eat as America in the twentieth century. Many cultures with traditional diets – such as the French, Asians, or even the Inuits who eat seal blubber in the Arctic regions – are actually healthier than the average American. In the United States, many families now spend more on what goes into their cars than what goes into their stomachs. Where else in the world can the aisle of a supermarket boast health additives and dietary supplements processed into a box of sweetened, usually colorful cereal? One wonders if more money is spent on the labels and advertising than on the contents of many of our processed foods.
Eating healthy not only provides an important family ritual each and every day, but it also saves time and money in health care, and in one’s ability to serve the workforce. For parents, our children depend upon us to teach them about healthy meals; but in America, it is not always easy to separate the marketing gimmicks from sensible and healthy foods. Although some people suffer from health conditions that require specialized diets, most of us benefit from eating fresh, local foods. As a mom who juggles a busy career with a family, I needed to feed my family healthy meals but without extensive time and effort. With practice and a bit of research, it became fun and also a relaxing way to end the day!
Here are ten cardinal rules for eating healthy (with thanks to reading Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and other food researchers; and with thanks to the organic farmers market stand operated by Worden Farms in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida):
The green movement has taken over the nation – from recycling to solar panels, Americans are doing more and more to help protect the environment. For many homeowners, that includes plans to make their home more green with renovations. If you are considering environmentally friendly updates to your property, remember it’s also important to understand how those modifications are covered under your homeowners insurance policy. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) provides these tips to help make your home – and your insurance – more green.
Standard Homeowners Insurance
A standard or non-green homeowners policy generally provides coverage for either the actual cash value or replacement value of your property with standard building materials.
Actual cash value pays for damages equal to the replacement value of the damaged property minus depreciation.
A replacement value policy generally provides repair or replacement at the same level of quality as the current value, with no deduction for depreciation, subject to the policy limits.
If your home was built to meet certain environmental standards, you should confirm that your policy specifically provides replacement to that same environmental level so that you won’t have to pay extra out-of-pocket costs to reach those same standards.
You may also be able to purchase a homeowners insurance policy that allows you to increase your home’s green factor following a loss. A few companies now offer homeowners policies that allow you to purchase additional insurance before damage occurs to ensure that extra funds are available to make those green enhancements, such as improving the energy efficiency of your home and using sustainable resources.
Green Homeowners Insurance
Some of the first green homeowners policies could only be purchased for new homes that were certified as meeting climate and zone specific construction standards for energy.1 Green homeowners policies written more recently cover varying degrees of green repairs.
A green homeowners policy is one that covers rebuilding a damaged home to green standards. Some policies will allow you to repair your home using green materials, but will have a cap on covered costs. Others may exclude coverage of items such as the fees charged by inspectors for having your home certified or re-certified as green.
These policies generally cover the costs of environmentally friendly materials and low environmental-impact processes, as well as energy-efficient replacement products and materials. Green building materials might include lighting, heating and cooling systems, windows, insulation, appliances, home electronics, home office equipment, plumbing fixtures, as well as framing, roofing and siding materials that require less energy to operate, are more durable, sustainability produced, or composed of recycled content.
Green renovations may help lower your costs on utility bills and even your taxes. Furthermore, they may even lower the premiums on your homeowners insurance. If your entire home, or your home repair, is certified to meet certain construction standards of fire-resistance, safety or longevity, check with your insurance agent or company to see if you’re eligible for extra discounts.
Each policy is different, so make sure your policy covers the items that you want to have covered. Green policies are not yet available in all states, so check with your state insurance department to find a company licensed to write a green policy in your state. Find a link to your state insurance department’s Web site at http://www.naic.org/state_web_map.htm.
Green Energy Insurance
Before you sell excess solar or wind-generated energy to your local utility company, there are insurance inquiries you should make.
Interconnection or net-metering allows you to sell energy overages to a local utility company. Net-metering requires that utility companies credit and bill energy for the same unit price; thus the meter will run backward when you are selling energy by the same unit measure as when it runs forward.
Most governmental bodies either require or strongly encourage homeowners to acquire and maintain additional liability insurance while their energy contract is in force. Be aware that municipalities might require you to reimburse it for any loss arising out of net-metering incidents that harm their workers or damage their property. Check with your local government or municipality for insurance requirements, before entering an energy agreement with a local utility. Ask the city and the utility company if it will require proof of a certain level of liability insurance coverage (which could range from $100,000 to $1 million per occurrence) as well as indemnification before finalizing a net-metering agreement. Also call your insurance agent or company to ensure that the liability portion of your homeowners insurance policy does not exclude coverage of net-metering related accidents.
If you are dealing with an energy cooperative, it may require that you name them as an additional insured under your policy. Talk with your insurance agent or company about how this affects your liability and payment for any loss and the related cost for the coverage.
1 One common certification is U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) or LEED certification.