Volume 7 Number 5 January 29, 2010
With the tough economic times we are facing in this state, including over a million unemployed Floridians struggling to support themselves and their families without a paycheck, obviously my first priority is helping our businesses create jobs and get people back to work.
Which is why this week, I was pleased to join President Obama as he announced that our state is receiving $1.25 billion in federal dollars for high-speed rail. This will benefit the region immediately by creating thousands of jobs, and on a broader scale, will provide the type of infrastructure our economy needs to grow and prosper.
State of Florida
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday called on state government to stop purchasing any non-mission critical office supplies, an effort that could save the state more than $14 million a year. In her own department, CFO Sink put a stop to purchasing non-mission critical office supplies for the rest of the fiscal year, a move that’s estimated to cut spending by at least 30 percent, or over $200,000 in taxpayer savings.
“As Florida’s CFO, I have searched for ways large and small to cut waste and run government more efficiently – remembering that the nickel and dime savings add up,” said CFO Sink. “State government should be more accountable to Florida’s taxpayers, more like a business, and no business would be buying extra office supplies when there isn’t enough money to provide essential services.”
Last year, CFO Sink formed a task force to inventory office supplies and find ways to reduce costs as soon as possible. The task force found that not only could the department implement a moratorium, but certain purchases could potentially be stemmed for years through better sharing of supplies. For example, the department inventoried 537 pounds of paper clips, 37,601 binder clips, and 17,425 pens.
To utilize these supplies, CFO Sink has implemented an interoffice website, dubbed the “CFO Depot,” designed to encourage employee sharing through web site posts. Employees can post excess items, make requests for supplies, or claim available items through the click of a mouse.
“Oh behalf of the taxpayers and all those who depend on the critical services provided by the state, I commend CFO Alex Sink for taking this approached, which is so bold and aggressive for government and yet so logical and sensible for working families, seniors, and business-owners large and small,” said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. “The problem with common sense is that it’s all too uncommon. Focusing resources on the government’s core mission, the critical services, and those programs that assist Florida’s most vulnerable citizens is exactly what all elected leaders should be doing.”
The agency-wide moratorium issued today will be in effect until the end of the current fiscal year, with a formal review by CFO Sink’s task force after 90 days. Exceptions will be made for purchases of mission critical items as determined on a case-by-case basis by Division Directors.
According to the Florida Legislature’s newly launched Transparency Florida website, the State of Florida spent $46,923,814.87 on consumable office supplies last fiscal year. If the entire state also cut office supply purchases by 30 percent, savings would amount to over $14 million. CFO Sink will be sending a letter to all agency heads detailing how her agency will be achieving these savings and calling on them to replicate these cost cutting steps.
Florida CFO Alex Sink joined President Barack Obama in Tampa on Thursday as he announced that Florida will receive $1.25 billion in federal funding for high speed rail. CFO Sink stressed the importance of rail in Florida to create jobs and spur future economic growth to President Obama during his visit, and urged a continued partnership to ensure progress for Florida’s rail projects.
“High speed and commuter rail are a key part of growing our economy here in Florida, and today’s announcement couldn’t come at a more important time for our state,” said CFO Sink. “Not only will comprehensive development of rail in our state help create thousands of jobs now, it will also build the infrastructure Florida needs long-term to bring our economy into the 21st century. I have been pushing to get more of our taxpayer dollars down from Washington, and will continue to urge President Obama and his Administration to work with Florida on this and other projects that can create jobs for our state.”
CFO Sink has been a tireless advocate for the comprehensive development of high speed and commuter rail in Florida as a key component to create a stronger economic future. In late 2009, CFO Sink met personally with Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo to push for federal funding, and she sponsored the Florida Cabinet Resolution urging the Obama Administration to fully fund Florida’s rail applications. Read the Resolution in full here.
On Tuesday at the Capitol during the Law Enforcement Office of the Year Award program, CFO Sink was honored to see two of her sworn law enforcement officers recognized for their superior work efforts and their dedication to their jobs and the citizens of Florida. Twelve law enforcement officers from around the state were acknowledged in the program and Jacksonville Sheriff's Deputy Jared Reston won the top award.
Division of Insurance Fraud Detective Deborah de la Paz-Boxer, a law enforcement officer for over 15 years, is currently the lead detective on the Division of Insurance Fraud’s Workers' Compensation squad in the West Palm Beach field office. During 2009, Detective de la Paz-Boxer made 14 arrests, maintained an average caseload of 18 cases per month and filed over 200 investigative reports. From January 1, 2009, to the present, cases successfully investigated by Detective de la Paz-Boxer resulted in court-ordered restitution to the victims in the amount of almost half a million dollars. One case this past year resulted in the arrest and conviction a roofing contractor in South Florida, who was utilizing the services of several shell companies to launder his payroll for the purpose of avoiding about $402,933.00 in workers’ compensation premiums.
State Fire Marshal Detective George Holcomb, with the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations in Orlando for more than four years, was recognized for his investigative work that led to the arrests of three suspects accused of setting a series of six residential fires that resulted in approximately a quarter of a million dollars in property losses. Detective Holcomb, looking into one fire, discovered five other arson cases that shared common traits and took the initiative to expand his case to include all six fires, resulting in the arrests of multiple defendants on multiple charges. Detective Holcomb put an end to a rash of arsons.
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday reiterated her call for changes that would create better protections for Floridians against abusive debt collectors, unveiling draft legislation and asking for the Florida Cabinet to come together to recommend tough, comprehensive reforms to the Florida Legislature at their next meeting.
After learning last year about thousands of consumer complaints that were not being acted on, CFO Sink proposed a series of changes that would create stronger regulation, harsher penalties, and real protection for Florida’s consumers. Following her initial call for changes in November, CFO Sink is now urging lawmakers to consider her proposals to protect Florida’s consumers in the upcoming legislative session.
“Clear, common-sense changes are needed to better protect Florida’s consumers against these abusive debt collector practices,” said CFO Sink. “The law currently protects debt collectors – not Florida’s citizens – and this needs to be changed immediately.”
Legislative changes proposed by CFO Sink would include:
Consumers who have been victims of abusive debt collector practices should contact the Florida Office of Financial Regulation at 1-800-848-3782 or visit http://www.flofr.com/Director/complaints.htm.
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday requested competition be used to lower legal fees for Florida’s pension fund, so that more of the money recovered goes to Florida. CFO Sink offered her proposal to inject competition into the State Board of Administration litigation process as an amendment at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, and it was approved unanimously by the Board of Trustees.
“Competition is the best way to get the best deal -- it's what I learned in the private sector and what I have encouraged in our state,” said CFO Sink. “It was clear to me that the most tangible way to avoid excessive fees was to spur competition among the law firms, and I am glad my colleagues supported this businesslike approach to lowering costs.”
CFO Sink also continued to push the State Board of Administration to quickly and more aggressively pursue legal action against financial institutions that misled their investors and recover the money Florida’s pension fund may be owed.
“Our focus has to be on making these newly hired law firms aggressively go after corporations who have misled investors like the Florida pension fund,” CFO Sink continued. “All this talk about keeping fees low means nothing if we aren’t taking action.”
Florida CFO Alex Sink asked for Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to competitively bid their contract to inspect Citizens’ properties at a meeting and in a letter to Citizen’s Chairman Jim Malone last week. CFO Sink called for the Citizens Board to implement this change from a no-bid to a competitively bid contract at Monday’s board meeting.
“I have always been a strong advocate for competitive bidding, because I feel that the taxpayers deserve that we get the best deal for the state. It is important that other companies be allowed to compete for this work through an open and competitive process,” CFO Sink wrote.
Read CFO Sink’s letter to Citizens' Chairman Malone.
Florida CFO Alex Sink has scheduled two Safeguard Our Seniors workshops in coming weeks in the Tampa area designed to protect senior citizens by educating about financial products issues such as annuities.
The first workshop will take place Saturday, January 30, at Lee Davis Neighborhood Service Center, 3402 N. 22nd Street, Tampa, FL 33605, from 10 a.m. until 12 noon.
The second workshop will take place Thursday, February 4, at the University Area Community Development Center, 14013 N. 22nd Street, Tampa, FL 33613, from 10 a.m. until 12 noon.
Anyone wishing to obtain additional information can call the Florida Department of Financial Services Consumer Helpline at (850) 413-3086 or 1-877-My-FL-CFO or visit www.flseniors.net.
Other upcoming Safeguard Our Seniors events include:
Tuesday, February 9, 2010 Cherry Laurel, 1009 Concord Road, Tallahassee 32308 1:00 to 2:30 p.m.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010 Mandarin Senior Center, 3848 Hartley Rd., Jacksonville, 32257 10:30 a.m.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 Aberdeen at Ormond Beach, 50 Allwood Green Blvd., Ormond Beach 32174 8:45 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 LifeStyle Enrichment Center, 628 SE Allison Ct, Lake City 32025 10:00 a.m. to Noon
Thursday, February 11, 2010 Clay County Senior Center, Green Cove Springs 32043 10:30 a.m.
Friday, February 12, 2010 TBA, West Palm Beach 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
Friday, February 12, 2010 Fleamasters Fleamarket, Grand Pavilion Building, 4135 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., Ft. Myers 33916 10:00 a.m. to Noon
Saturday, February 13, 2010 Brighton Gardens of Tampa, 16702 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa 33618 10:00 a.m. to Noon
Tuesday, February 16, 2010 Mount Zuri Baptist Church, 225 NW 253rd St, Newberry 10:00 a.m.
Florida CFO Alex Sink is urging Florida taxpayers to find out if they may be one of the estimated 10,000 Floridians who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal tax credit for low-income working individuals and families, on Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day 2010. Eligible Floridians are due back an estimated $15 million, on top of what they already may be claiming on their taxes, if they all claimed the EITC.
“As so many of Florida’s families are facing tough economic times, I want to make sure that every single taxpayer who is eligible for this money is getting what they are owed. These savings could be used to pay down family debt, make a house payment, or go to a child’s college tuition,” said CFO Sink. “These dollars could make a big difference in the lives of Florida’s hard-working families, and the money is simply waiting to be claimed.”
CFO Sink’s Bureau of Consumer Outreach will hold several events to promote awareness of those who qualify for the EITC, including events with the RealSense Prosperity Campaign Tax Season and Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day and the EITC Kick-off with Legal Services of Mid-Florida.
On Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day, CFO Sink also encouraged Floridians to claim their undelivered tax refunds. In Florida, the average undeliverable refund is $1,538, and some taxpayers may be due more than one check. To find out if they have an undeliverable refund, taxpayers can visit http://www.irs.gov and click on “Where’s My Refund.” A list of undelivered refunds by county is attached.
The EITC helps taxpayers whose incomes are below $40,295 for families with two or more qualifying children, $35,463 for individuals with one qualifying child and $13,440 for individuals who have no qualifying children. Floridians can visit http://www.eitc.irs.gov 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 the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.
CFO Sink spoke to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Board of Directors Meeting on Friday in St. Petersburg Beach. Restaurants and lodging provide nearly one million Floridians with jobs, encompassing about 20 percent of Florida’s economy. CFO Sink spoke to the group about creating and protecting sustainable jobs, including making sure government is acting as a catalyst for growth.
“If we create a stronger, more sustainable economy here in Florida, then you will be sure that you have more people to eat at your restaurants and stay at your hotels,” CFO Sink said.
In recognition of National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, the Office of the Insurance Consumer Advocate would like to share with you some information on women’s health care coverage.
Currently, cervical cancer is one of the most fatal forms of cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death for women. Though preliminary screening has assisted in the prevention and early detection of the disease, last year more than 11,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States. In addition, about 4,000 women died from the disease last year alone.
Although this disease can be fatal, as with other forms of cancer, early detection is key. Annual Pap Tests and regular checkups from a primary care physician can lower the likelihood of the disease going undetected. Recently, a vaccine was released that protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV). This vaccine protects against two forms of the virus which cause 70% of cervical cancer cases. The CDC recommends routine vaccinations for girls 11 to 12-years-old. Further, the vaccine is also recommended for young women ages 13-26 who have not yet been vaccinated or completed the vaccination series.
Though cancer screenings and pap smears are covered by health insurance providers, there are some important issues consumers should consider before receiving preventative care for cervical cancer:
Cervical cancer can be prevented with proper screening. Consumers can reduce their risk of receiving unexpected fees by reviewing their policy, and contacting their provider prior to receiving preventative care.
If you have any questions regarding cervical cancer coverage you should contact the Division of Consumer Services within the Department of Financial Services on-line at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/ or by phone at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236), toll-free in Florida, and (850) 413-3089 from out of state.
The Insurance Consumer Advocate is appointed by Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and is committed to finding solutions to insurance issues facing Floridians, calling attention to questionable insurance practices, promoting a viable insurance market responsive to the needs of Florida’s diverse population and assuring that rates are fair and justified.
CFO Sink was the keynote speaker at the Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce Annual Installation/Awards Dinner on Saturday. At the event, CFO Sink spoke with many Southwest Florida residents about the need to diversify their economy and the problems they are facing with both unemployment and the housing market. In her speech, CFO Sink noted that small business owners in the region and throughout the state have routinely expressed to her that the number one issue they face is a lack of access to credit. Sink outlined some of the steps she has taken to increase access to capital for Floridians, including encouraging all 167 community banks in Florida to increase their small business lending.
Children play an important role in helping their families conserve energy. And while we are frequently vigilant about reducing our energy demands at home, it is important to be good stewards at work and school as well.
Did you know that lighting accounts for nearly 50% of the electric bills in most schools? There are a number of things schools, teachers and students can do to change those statistics. First, teachers can create student energy patrols. These students would have several duties including to ensure lights are out when rooms are empty. The patrols would be assigned to check and turn off lights in classrooms, the cafeteria, the auditorium when those spaces are empty. Second, teachers could have students make signs and stickers to remind people to turn off the lights when they leave a room. Even mentioning on a routine basis the need to save energy helps children stay aware of the need to conserve.
Another idea that teachers can incorporate into their classes is to experiment by turning off selected banks of lights and surveying occupancy comfort at different lighting levels. The classes might discover that some of the lights are not needed. This may be particularly true in classes where natural light is plentiful.
Last, teachers can examine the school computers to ensure that the computer controls are set to go into “sleep” mode when it is not actively being used. Note that screen savers don’t save energy—only the sleep mode does. Students should be taught to turn off all computers at the end of the day and on weekends.
If these small steps are taken, cumulatively schools will discover their electric bills coming down, giving them funds to be put to other important uses within the schools.
The Department of Financial Services served 490 Floridians at two Florida Housing Help (FHH) workshops last Saturday.
In partnership with the University Area Community Development Center, the Department helped 350 homeowners in Tampa. A second FHH event served 140 homeowners in Deltona.
In Tampa, consumers met with loan modification teams from Chase Bank, SunTrust, Wells Fargo/Wachovia, Fifth-Third, HSBC/Household Finance/Beneficial Financial, and Sun Coast Federal Credit Union.
Homeowners were also assisted by HUD-certified housing counselors in addition to many community presenters and service providers.
“I am grateful for this workshop, it has given me hope-God bless you folks,” one Tampa area homeowner wrote on an exit survey.
Members of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc. –Tampa Bay Chapter and Florida A & M University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences students worked as volunteers to register and assist consumers during this event.
In Deltona, attendees had an opportunity to discuss their situation, face to face, with several lenders including Chase, CITI, US Bank, SunTrust, and Fairwinds. HUD certified housing counselors and legal advisors also provided counseling.
For more information about CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help events, visit the Department’s Web site at www.MyFloridaCFO.com.
For workshops that include community partners and resources and offer great information to citizens, visit http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/OutReach/EventsbyCategory.asp.
Many of us are now beginning to gather tax information to provide to a tax preparation specialist. So the question many people have is, “How do I choose someone to prepare my taxes for me?”
If you make below $49,000, you may qualify for the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) Programs who offer free tax help for taxpayers who qualify.
Trained community volunteers may help with special credits, such as Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled. In addition to free tax return preparation assistance, most sites also offer free electronic filing (e-filing). Individuals taking advantage of the e-file program will receive their refunds in half the time compared to returns filed on paper – even faster when tax refunds are deposited directly into one's bank account.
Certified volunteers sponsored by various organizations receive training to help prepare basic tax returns in communities across the country. VITA sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls, and other convenient locations. Most locations also offer free electronic filing. To locate the nearest VITA site, call 1-800-829-1040.
Items you need to bring to the VITA/TCE sites to have your tax returns prepared
For more information about VITA, visit the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov.
Last year, over a million Floridians received unemployment checks. Congress has made the first $2,400 of 2009's unemployment benefits exempt from federal income tax.
College students may be eligible for the new American Opportunity Tax Credit that is worth up to $2,500 for households with students in college. Even those who owe no tax can get a refund of up to $1,000 for each eligible student, the IRS says. This credit is more generous than the credits families had last year.
Don't forget to check on whether you qualify for the earned income tax credit - see the article above for more information.
First-time home buyers – who didn't own a home for the previous three years - are eligible for a tax credit of up to $8,000. If you are not a first-time buyer but have lived in your home five of the eight years before you bought a new home there's a potential credit of up to $6,500 for your 2009 taxes.
Car buyers who received a cash-for-clunkers payment last year should know that it is not taxable. The government doesn't get any of your $3,500 or $4,500 voucher or payment back in taxes.
Homeowners in trouble who get a debt forgiven – such as your mortgage lender agreeing to a short sale of your home –should know that the forgiven amount could become taxable. But not for 2009 on your residence in most circumstances.
Your health insurance premiums such as paying for continuation of your coverage under COBRA generally are not tax deductible.
Each of these tax provisions are more complicated than can be explained here. So be sure to check for further details as you figure out your taxes. The best place to go is IRS.gov and look under "Forms and Publications" to read the full rules on each topic.