Volume 6 Number 27 July 3, 2009
This weekend’s Fourth of July holiday offers a great chance to get together with friends and family to celebrate our nation’s independence. As your State Fire Marshal, I encourage you to exercise caution among the cheer. Even something as simple as a sparkler can be very dangerous unless used carefully.
For information on how to have a safe and fun Fourth of July, check out the safety tips we have listed below. Have a happy and safe Fourth of July weekend!
Chief Financial Officer
State of Florida
Florida CFO and State Fire Marshal Alex Sink on Thursday joined State Emergency Management officials to urge Floridians to observe fire safety rules and follow fireworks laws as they celebrate this Fourth of July.
“As we gather this Fourth of July weekend to celebrate America’s Independence, I urge Floridians and visitors to take the proper fire safety precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones,” said CFO Sink. “All fireworks can be dangerous, and that makes it all the more crucial that the public only use state approved fireworks for their celebrations.”
Nearly 9,800 Americans were treated for fireworks related injuries in emergency rooms in 2007. In Florida alone, fire departments responded to at least 145 fires related to fireworks and sparklers, resulting in more than $920,000 in damages during 2007.
“The Fourth of July is a time for Floridians to come together and enjoy family and friends, but unfortunately many end up visiting emergency rooms,” said Interim State Emergency Management Director Ruben Almaguer. “We want our residents and visitors to celebrate safely this weekend and use only state approved fireworks.”
Watch a Fireworks Safety Video.
Under Florida law, only sparklers, approved by CFO Sink’s Division of State Fire Marshal, are legal for consumer usage. However, an exemption in the law allows for the use of un-approved fireworks for agricultural purpose, such as frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries. Anyone using fireworks under the agricultural exemption must have a permit from the Sheriff in the county where they will use the product. Without a permit, it is illegal to use fireworks in Florida, which include: shells and mortars, multiple tube devices, Roman candles, rockets and firecrackers.
As a general guideline, anything that flies through the air or explodes is not allowed for consumer use. Floridians should not sign “waivers” in order to purchase fireworks. Signing a waiver will not clear a consumer of responsibility should you be caught illegally using fireworks, which is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
There is still a risk of injury with the use of legal sparklers. When lit, some sparklers can reach temperatures between 1,300 and 1,800 degrees - at least 200 degrees hotter than a standard butane lighter. For a list of hundreds of sparklers that are legal to use in Florida, as well as safety tips, visit the State Fire Marshal’s web site at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/sfm/sparklerindex.htm.
To celebrate safely, CFO Sink advises Floridians to follow these precautions:
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday urged Florida’s families to make sure their children have health care coverage as new reforms to simplify and streamline Florida’s KidCare program went into effect today. For more information about enrollment in Florida KidCare, families can visit www.floridakidcare.org to apply on-line or call 1-888-540-5437 to receive an application by mail.
“In these tough times, we should make it as easy as possible for Florida’s families to get their children the heath care they need,” said CFO Sink. “I am so pleased that we were able to finally remove the unnecessary barriers that made it difficult for Florida’s kids to be enrolled and stay enrolled in Healthy Kids, and urge Floridians to make sure their children are covered.”
CFO Sink, who chaired the Healthy Kids Board during her first 20 months in office, supported legislation sponsored by Senator Nan Rich and Representative Jimmy Patronis this spring, and has pushed for these reforms for three legislative sessions. The new law that goes into effect today will remove administrative barriers to the program and make changes to expedite enrollment with no additional funding required.
The Florida Healthy Kids program is a public-private partnership that allows Florida’s families to purchase health insurance for their children. Florida Healthy Kids is one of four components of the larger Florida KidCare program. Florida Healthy Kids coverage includes regular doctor visits, dental check-ups and immunizations.
On Monday, CFO Sink addressed the Florida Public Pension Trustees Association at their 25th annual anniversary conference in Boca Raton. The FPPTA provides education and information for the public pension system and protects Defined Benefit Pension Plans.
Public pension funds in the U.S. hold more than $3 trillion in assets, cover nearly 20 million workers and retirees, and are vital to the business of state and local governments as well as the public employees they cover. In her remarks, CFO Sink stressed the importance of continuing education for pension trustees and managers on risk management, governance issues, and investment management. She also called for more transparency, accountability and responsibility on behalf of investment managers.
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday announced that her Bureau of Unclaimed Property returned over $173 million in unclaimed property for the 2008-2009 Fiscal Year -- the largest amount in state history.
“I am especially proud that in these tough economic times our Bureau of Unclaimed Property was able to return millions of dollars to Floridians through a diligent, proactive, and business-like approach to seeking owners and responding to citizens,” said CFO Sink. “I am so proud of the hard work of our Bureau that set this record and I encourage all Floridians to visit www.FLTreasureHunt.org and see what property they may have still waiting.”
Since the program’s inception 48 years ago, the Bureau of Unclaimed Property has successfully reunited owners or relatives of deceased owners with more than $1.4 billion in unclaimed property held in Florida. During Alex Sink’s tenure as CFO, the Bureau has successfully reunited owners, heirs and businesses with more than one-third of all money returned since the beginning of the program, due largely to an aggressive effort to contact property owners.
The Bureau of Unclaimed Property is currently holding 8.8 million accounts, mostly from dormant accounts in financial institutions, unclaimed utility deposits, insurance benefits, premium refunds, uncashed checks and trust accounts, as well as watches, jewelry, coins, stamps and historical items from abandoned safe deposit boxes. Unclaimed property can be claimed for free at any time by the rightful owners or heirs by logging on to www.FLTreasureHunt.org or by calling the Bureau at 1-88-VALUABLE.
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday commended the Division of Bond Finance for taking advantage of the Build America Bonds program, saving $56 million dollars for the taxpayers of Florida.
“I applaud the Division of Bond Finance for taking smart steps to utilize federal stimulus money and save the taxpayers of Florida millions of dollars,” said CFO Sink. “In our current budget situation, our state must do everything it can to get our fair share of federal funds and find innovative ways to save money. Making sure that Florida was taking advantage of these Build America Bonds was a great way to see millions in cost savings.”
The state of Florida will save over $1.7 million annually and $56.1 million overall by utilizing the Build America Bonds. Division of Bond Finance Director, J. Ben Watkins III, was singled out by CFO Sink as a leader in using federal stimulus money to lower costs for Floridians.
Because the interest rate on the Build America Bonds with the $131.3 million federal rebate is less than traditional tax-exempt financing, total interest cost savings over the 30-year term of the financing will be $56,103,292. Build America Bonds are new tax incentives created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With Build America Bonds, Florida can receive a tax rebate from the Federal government equal to 35% of the interest costs.
CFO Sink noted that with this smart use of federal stimulus money, Florida is one step closer to getting our state’s fair share of federal funds. Earlier this year, CFO Sink released a report specifically outlining steps Florida could take to maximize federal funding, which can be found at www.MyFloridaCFO.com.
The Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, a group of nearly 500 members who work to protect the interests of insured homeowners and businesses who suffer insurance losses, welcomed CFO as a guest speaker this week at their summer conference in Ft. Lauderdale. While there, CFO Sink commended the group on their formalized certification and apprenticeship programs and also their code of conduct, which prohibits financial relationships with contractors.
CFO Sink spoke about the work her Department of Financial Services has done to protect insurance consumers, including measures to educate consumers about the importance of working only with licensed public adjusters. She also spoke about efforts by her department’s Division of Insurance Fraud to crack down on bad actors who take advantage of consumers; roughly eleven percent of the investigative cases processed by the division relate to public adjusting violations.
Florida CFO Alex Sink on Monday commended Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer for his announcement that SunRail is extending their negotiating period, keeping alive Central Florida’s aspirations for commuter rail. Below is a statement from CFO Sink:
“Commuter rail is so important for Central Florida, and it is my hope that with this extended negotiating period worked out by Mayor Dyer, a reasonable deal can be structured for the taxpayers of our state.
“I am encouraged that this amended plan comes at a time when the federal government’s commitment to high speed and commuter rail will mean a better financial deal and additional money, reducing the burden for Floridians.
“I am also pleased that Mayor Dyer has expressed his desire to involve risk management experts and attorneys from the Department of Financial Services in the liability provision discussions.”
Florida CFO Alex Sink today announced the arrest and extradition of a Duval County woman who fraudulently billed several insurance companies in Florida, Georgia and Connecticut over $330,000 for acupuncture services that were not rendered or were over-billed. The arrest is the result of a five-year long investigation by the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud along with multiple other state and federal agencies.
Jian Liu, 39, has been charged with organized fraud and false and fraudulent insurance claims. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison. Liu’s arrest underscores CFO Sink’s work to toughen penalties and crack down on insurance fraud criminals, whose actions cost not just businesses but also everyday consumers who face higher premiums because of this kind of fraud.
“Insurance fraud is a costly crime with serious consequences for businesses, communities, and consumers,” said CFO Sink. “I commend the diligent work of Detective Brian McCoy and all of the dedicated law enforcement professionals who worked to put this criminal behind bars.”
The Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud was prepared to arrest Liu in 2005 following an undercover investigation by Detective McCoy, when it was determined that Liu was filing fraudulent claims as well as offering to pay patients cash incentives to remain silent and allow the fraud to continue. However, Liu fled the country before the arrest, and traveled between Asia, the U.K. and Canada before she was arrested by the Canada Border Services Agency and consequently, by U.S. Customs. Following a Florida Governor’s Warrant, Liu was extradited to Florida on June 24 and booked in the Jacksonville County Jail.
In addition to the Division of Insurance Fraud, agencies involved in this investigation include: the Attorney General’s Office of the Statewide Prosecutor; National Insurance Crime Bureau; Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company; State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company; Progressive Insurance Company; Response Insurance, Meriden; AETNA Life Insurance Company; Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (CIGNA); and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida Inc.
Florida CFO Alex Sink is reminding Floridians that before you take a summer road trip, it is important to plan ahead and review your auto insurance. Knowing the details of your policy is important in case you are involved in an accident. It’s also important to know what happens when you file a claim.
“In the excitement of planning for a trip, it can be easy to forget how important it is to make sure you have the insurance coverage you need,” said CFO Sink. “Reviewing your auto insurance policy should be part of your travel preparation checklist, just like changing your oil and checking your tires.”
CFO Sink offers these tips for Floridians planning summer travel:
Before Leaving on Vacation:
If You Are in an Automobile Accident:
For questions about auto insurance coverage requirements in Florida, or to verify the license of the agent and the insurance company before you sign the application for a policy, call the Department of Consumer Services Consumer Help Line at 1-877-MyFLCFO (1-877-693-5236) or visit www.myfloridacfo.com.
CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help workshop last Saturday in Tampa drew more than 450 homeowners seeking help with pending foreclosures. More than 50 volunteers, 40 housing counselors and dozens of lenders, speakers and vendors were on hand to assist.
Special thanks goes to the University Area Community Center Complex for assisting with securing volunteers and staff to help facilitate the event.
“The University Area Community Center Complex is a true community partner,” said Linda Smart, DFS community outreach coordinator for the Tampa area. “They understood the need for this event and the urgency of the issues we were addressing.”
One couple was extremely grateful for the help they received. Due to unemployment, they found themselves unable to make their mortgage payment. They qualified for a loan modification under the “Making Home Affordable Program,” and their interest rate was reduced from 8.999% to 2.0% for a period of five years and cannot exceed 5.590%. They ultimately reduced their monthly payments by more than $726.
Here are some of the comments provided on exit surveys:
“Excellent service to connect with lenders in a positive format – thank you.”
“Thank you for having this event. This is the first real help I received since the employment and foreclosure problems started”.
“This workshop is great for homeowners to get information that they have not been able to obtain from the banks by phone—thank you.”
Speakers addressed various topics including avoiding foreclosure, tax relief for struggling homeowners, short sales, housing rehabilitation for homeowners and more.
The event has sparked an increase in calls to the CFO’s helpline asking when the next Florida Housing Help workshop will be held. For a calendar of FHH events, log on to http://www.myfloridacfo.com/FloridaHousingHelp/.
The Florida Housing Help initiative was inspired by CFO Sink’s Financial Action Team (FACT), which she established last year to make sure Floridians get their share of federal assistance funds. FACT Team members represent a broad coalition of financial and housing stakeholders
It is very important to periodically review your homeowners’ insurance policy, and the beginning of hurricane season is a perfect time. Filing a claim, after a disaster, is not the best time to find out about your insurance coverage. Carefully examine your insurance deductible and the policy limits so when you have a loss you know how much coverage you have and how much you will have to pay out of pocket.
The deductible is the amount of money you must pay out of pocket if you suffer a loss. For example, if you file a claim that your insurer accepts in the amount of $3,000, and your deductible is $200, the insurance company should pay $2,800. If the amount of your damage is less than your deductible, you should not file a claim.
Most homeowners’ insurance policies contain a separate hurricane deductible. The minimum hurricane deductible available is $500. The other hurricane deductibles available are 2 percent, 5 percent, or 10 percent of the dwelling limit. The deductible must be stated on the policy declarations page as a dollar amount regardless of the percentage that applies. The declarations page also provides the limits for other coverage included in your policy such as other structures, personal property, and liability. For more information on understanding your deductible, visit http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/understandCoverage.htm.
Find out when a Hurricane Preparedness Event will be in your area on our calendar linked here. Check back with us next week for more ideas.
According to a Consumer Reports poll, the most popular remodeling projects for homeowners are kitchens (19%) and bathrooms (17%). Consumer Reports asked 6,000 readers to reveal what went wrong when they remodeled their kitchens and baths and how much those mistakes added to the overall cost of their projects. Here's how to avoid their mistakes and save:
Don't rush in. Changing plans is the most common, but costliest remodeling gaffe.
Prepare for the unexpected. There's a lot going on behind the walls such as unexpected water damage and structural problems.
Don't chase the low ball. Contractors are lowering their profit margins due to the tight market, but they often make up their costs in labor or other areas. Don't sign a contract with a lot of open-ended amounts for products and materials -- these are called "allowances," in contractor speak.
Get the paperwork in order. Have the contractor attach copies of his up-to-date license, insurance, and workers' compensation policies to the written contract. He should also get permits and provide a lien waiver when the job is done; this will keep suppliers from contacting the homeowner for unpaid bills.
Focus on the boring bits. Specifying lighting and placement of trash cans are not much fun, but are critical to the process. For example, the proper exhaust fan will prevent mildew in baths and vent odors in kitchens.
Black carbon, commonly called soot, results from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels or biomass such as wood. Common sources of soot are wild fires, diesel engines, burning wood or other bio-fuels, and agricultural burn-off. It is now considered a leading cause of global warming, second only to carbon dioxide emissions. But the good news is that soot disintegrates from atmosphere after only a few days or weeks (as compared to carbon dioxide which lasts for centuries). So the eradication of soot in daily practices could slow down the planet’s current warming trends.
Soot has a two-fold effect on climate change – the dark particles not only warm the air but they also melt the ice or snow upon which they land. Scientific evidence indicates that black carbon may cause up to 50% of the Arctic ice melt: the black particles can travel thousands of miles to settle on ice and snow, reducing surface reflectivity and increasing melting rates. Himalayan glaciers may lose up to 75% of their ice by 2020, exacerbated by wind-dispersed soot particles. In addition, soot causes lung disease in women and children who use wood-burning stoves.
An ethical, as well as practical, energy tip involves minimizing soot in all of our daily practices. If you drive with diesel fuel, make sure that your engine contains the appropriate technology to reduce any soot emissions. Try to minimize wood-burning fires except when necessary. Never use matches in dry landscapes; wild fires not only release soot into the air, but they are also cause destruction of property and sometimes death of citizens. When clearing landscapes, try to avoid large-scale burning; the soot released invariably settles far away, creating economic problems for someone else.