CFO Alex Sink's Consumer eViews NewsletterFLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
ALEX SINK'S NEWSLETTER

Volume 6 Number 51 December 18, 2009

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Dear Floridian:

As your CFO, I am always looking for ways to do the business of the state in the most accountable and effective way possible.  That’s why this week, I focused on standing up for Florida’s homeowners, businesses and families and providing tangible results for them.

I spoke with Lisa Jackson, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about the need for the EPA to work closely with our state as they develop new water quality standards.   And today, I met with community organizations from the Palm Beach area to highlight real help we can provide to Florida homeowners as they struggle to stay in their homes this holiday season.

Finally, I hope you take the time to read a column I wrote this week about the need for greater oversight of our state's $112 billion pension fund.  

Sincerely,

Alex Sink
CFO
State of Florida


CFO Sink talks about solutions for homeowners at Florida Housing Help Roundtable

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Friday highlighted two initiatives she started to bring real, tangible help to Florida homeowners facing foreclosure, and heard from local leaders and community groups who are on the frontlines of tackling the state’s housing crisis.

At her Florida Housing Help roundtable in West Palm Beach, CFO Sink brought together Mayor Lois Frankel, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, local housing counselors and others concerned groups to discuss how they are working to help Florida citizens stay in their homes.  CFO Sink also heard from local area homeowners who were able to avoid foreclosure with the help of these community groups.

“I want to do everything I can to ensure struggling Florida homeowners can get real help and keep a roof over their heads,” said CFO Sink.  “Floridians are still facing huge challenges and today we were able to highlight multiple ways that they can get help -- either at one of my Housing Help workshops, with a volunteer attorney through the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes program, or at one of the many community organizations in the Palm Beach area dedicated to this kind of work.”

Palm Beach County has seen more than 27,500 foreclosure cases already this year. To help combat these statistics, CFO Sink’s Department of Financial Services has held seven Florida Housing Help workshops in the Palm Beach area, and over 70 around the entire state of Florida, since the beginning of 2009.

Joining CFO Sink at the table today were West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, HomeFree-USA-West Palm Beach Center Executive Director Michelle Mays, and representatives from the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Fair Housing Project, Elder Law Project, the Financial Literacy Council and other community organizations.

Also on hand were local homeowners Lucile Roberts and Lisa Udoakang.  Ms. Udoakang originally attended one of CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help workshops, and because of the contacts she met there, she was able to get out of an expensive force-placed insurance policy and to address home loan modification with a trained counselor.  Ms. Roberts received help from the West Palm Beach Foreclosure Assistance Center and from Curt Sanchez of the Legal Aid Society.  Ms. Roberts was able to get her loan modified so that her payments were lowered and she now has an escrow account to pay her taxes and insurance in a timely manner. 

“I felt it was a big burden lifted off me when I left the Foreclosure Assistance Center,” Ms. Roberts, above right, said.  “These groups are persistent; they don’t give up. They safeguard your paperwork and were diligent in filing everything the lender asked for.  When the lender acted like they did not receive information, it was faxed back again and again until I finally received a workable payment that I could afford.”

Palm Beach County residents concerned about staying in their homes are encouraged to attend the next area Florida Housing Help workshop planned on January 19, 2010 from 5:00 P.M. until 8:00 P.M. at the Cooperative Extension Service, Clayton Hutcheson Agricultural Services Center, located at 559 North Military Trail, West Palm Beach. 

Details on CFO Sink’s work to help Florida’s homeowners and a calendar of upcoming Florida Housing Help events can be found at http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/FloridaHousingHelp.


New online help center unveiled by CFO Sink for Florida's insurance consumers

New Consumer Online Help Will Save Taxpayer Dollars While Improving Service

Florida CFO Alex Sink today unveiled a new online help center for Florida’s insurance consumers, allowing Floridians to submit their insurance questions and complaints electronically.

Consumer Help Online allows Floridians to easily submit a request for assistance with insurance or financial matters online without having to pick up the phone. This new online service will save taxpayer dollars by reducing costs associated with collecting information over the phone, and provide 24-hour availability for consumers to submit assistance requests. 

“Allowing Florida’s consumers to easily ask for help online not only improves service but saves taxpayer money as well,” said CFO Sink. “This new system gives Floridians a quick and convenient resource to protect their families, homes and businesses, and is part of the modern, businesslike approach we are taking to help Florida’s consumers.”

Earlier this year, CFO Sink consolidated the Department’s previous 11 consumer call centers into two, saving Florida taxpayers more than $2 million annually.  If just 15 percent of people use the online help center, it is estimated to save taxpayers an additional $4,000 a year by reducing costs associated with collecting information over the phone.  CFO Sink’s consumer helpline receives as many as 300,000 calls each year.

At CFO Sink’s new online help center, consumers will be able to file a request for assistance and check the status of their request at any time.  CFO Sink’s insurance specialists will receive the request, answer insurance questions and, if necessary, contact the company or agent on the consumer’s behalf. General comments or suggestions about the insurance industry can also be submitted anonymously.

For more information about CFO Sink’s ‘Consumer Help Online’ or to submit an insurance request for assistance please visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com


Read CFO Sink’s thoughts on state pension fund reform

CFO Sink has been pushing for real reform to our state’s $112 billion pension fund that our teachers, firefighters and police officers depend on for a secure retirement, and the St. Petersburg Times recently published an Op-Ed she wrote detailing why we need stronger oversight and accountability.

An excerpt of CFO Sink’s Op-Ed is below:

Like many of you, I love watching sports — football, basketball, you name it. And, if you're like me, you occasionally find yourself standing in front of the TV, shouting at the refs.

Sure, we take issue with the referees from time to time. But imagine if there were no referees at all. No qualified professionals down on the field, trained to call the game and stay on top of it play after play. Chances are, you'd be shouting at your TV every five minutes, "Hey, no fair! No way! How'd they let that happen? Gimme a break!"

For nearly two years, as Florida's chief financial officer, I've been making the case that the state pension fund urgently requires that very same kind of trained, qualified, professional oversight.

Now the pension fund is overseen by just three elected officials — the governor, the attorney general and the CFO. All of us are elected by the people of Florida, but only one of us brings a financial background in the private sector to our roles as trustees of the state pension fund. As that lone trustee who brings financial and business experience to the job, I'm greatly concerned for the pension fund's long-term health and stability…

Continue reading CFO Sink’s Op-Ed here.


CFO Sink commends signing of rail legislation and continues push for federal investment in rail for Florida

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday commended Governor Charlie Crist’s signing of the rail bill passed during special session.

“Our state has shown our commitment to high speed and commuter rail, which is important for Florida’s jobs, infrastructure, and long-term economic growth,” said CFO Sink. “I am pleased that we have achieved a comprehensive vision for rail in our state as well as commuter rail for Central Florida. Now our attention turns to Washington, as we work to ensure that Florida’s applications for federal taxpayer dollars set aside for rail projects are funded.”

Last week CFO Sink sent a letter to Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo, urging that Florida receive the requested federal funds for the state’s rail projects. In October, CFO Sink met personally with Administrator Szabo on the eve of the rail application deadline to advocate for these funds.

“Florida has championed your charge of demonstrating an achievable vision for high speed and commuter rail through our detailed project applications and our collective and purposeful legislative action,” CFO Sink wrote. “I ask that you review Florida’s applications in light of these latest advances and urge the Administration to approve all of Florida’s requests.”

CFO Sink has been a tireless advocate for the comprehensive development of high speed and commuter rail in Florida as a key component in creating a stronger economic future for our state. In the letter, she noted that the Tampa-Orlando High Speed Rail Corridor was “shovel-ready” and could be built faster than any other project in the country. CFO Sink previously sponsored a Cabinet Resolution supporting these projects and urging President Obama, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Administrator Szabo to fully fund Florida’s applications.

Read the Resolution in full here. A copy of CFO Sink’s letter is attached.


CFO Sink recommends Investigation by Governor Crist's Inspector General on Department of Transportation email activity

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday sent a letter to Governor Charlie Crist recommending that he initiate an investigation by his Chief Inspector General into the conduct of the Department of Transportation employees who sent state emails using code words.

“If anyone deliberately attempted to subvert our state’s sunshine requirements, they should be held accountable,” CFO Sink wrote to Governor Crist. “An independent investigation by your Inspector General looking into DOT’s activity is the best way to ensure this accountability.”

According to the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times, Crist ordered a review within minutes of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink suggesting just such a step.

"I got a letter from the CFO, I concur with her request," Crist said.

A copy of CFO Sink’s letter is attached.


State Farm is staying in Florida to write property insurance

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday commented on State Farm’s settlement with the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation to stay in Florida:

“I am pleased that State Farm and the Office of Insurance Regulation have reached a settlement to keep the largest private property insurer in our state,” said CFO Sink. “My priority is standing up for Florida’s consumers, and now most Floridians will be able to maintain their current State Farm policies if they so choose. I also am glad that so many Floridians who work as State Farm agents will be able to continue serving their long-time customers.”


CFO Sink announces arrest of Okaloosa woman for "granting" herself Floridians' tax dollars

Florida CFO Alex Sink today announced the arrest of Brenda Kay Smith for using her position at Elder Services of Okaloosa County (ESOC), a community non-profit organization, to steal $3,400 in taxpayer dollars intended to help low-income residents. Smith turned herself into the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office on Monday after being confronted by CFO Sink’s investigators, and was charged with Grand Theft, a third degree felony.

“Ms. Smith not only stole aid from those who needed it most – she was also stealing from every taxpayer in the State of Florida,” said CFO Sink. “Stealing taxpayer dollars intended to help Floridians in need is intolerable, and I commend investigators with our Office of Fiscal Integrity for putting a stop to it.”

An investigation by CFO Sink’s Office of Fiscal Integrity revealed that between 2006 and 2008, Smith created fictitious documents to receive $1,200 in rental assistance, along with $2,200 to pay for utility bills at her residence. Smith was the ESOC employee responsible for initiating and coordinating assistance through the Community Services Block Grant Program (CSBG) and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to eligible residents in Okaloosa County.

The Office of Fiscal Integrity was contacted by the Florida Department of Community Affairs’ Inspector General, when the expenditures by ESOC arose suspicion. After questioning by CFO Sink’s investigators, Smith admitted to the thefts. On Friday, December 11 an arrest warrant was issued with the assistance of the State Attorney’s Office, First Judicial Circuit.


Training provided for new Funeral and Cemetery board members

The Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services recently provided statutorily required training for the four new Board members appointed to serve on the Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services.

The Division and the Board regulate Florida’s funeral services industry under Chapter 497 of the Florida Statutes. The four new Board members receiving the training were Jean Anderson (Tallahassee), Lewis “Lew” Hall, Jr. (Lakeland), Col. Don Stiegman (Orlando), and Virginia “Ginny” Taylor (Jacksonville).

The training was held at the Alexander Building in Tallahassee and included, among other topics, coverage of Ethics and Sunshine Law requirements, as well as an overview of Ch. 497 and administrative processes under Ch. 120, Florida Statutes.

As part of the Ethics and Sunshine Law training, the Board members learned the sources of ethics and government-in-the-sunshine laws, penalties for violating those laws, how to identify and address potential conflicts of interest as Board members, and ethics restrictions regarding gifts. The presentations were well received by the Board members and members of the industry who attended the training.

The next scheduled Board Meeting is January 7, 2010, and will take place by teleconference. For more information regarding the Board and the Division, please visit the Division’s homepage at http://myfloridacfo.com/FuneralCemetery/.


Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate to host Alternative Dispute Resolution Roundtable

Sean M. Shaw, Esq., Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate

In an effort to help Floridians affected by property insurance losses the Insurance Consumer Advocate will host a roundtable on Wednesday, January 6, 2010. Recently, several insurance companies have amended or removed the appraisal provision from their policies. The appraisal process had been considered to be a cost-effective process for resolving claim disputes, but has been highly criticized in recent years.

Sean Shaw will bring together members of the insurance industry and other professionals who are involved in the alternative dispute resolution processes, such as public adjusters, appraisal umpires and attorneys. The roundtable will work to identify complications with the current appraisal process and make recommendations on how to improve the appraisal process so that it can again be a viable dispute resolution process.

The date and time of the roundtable are as follows:

DATE: Wednesday, January 6, 2010

TIME: 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.

LOCATION: House Office Building, 4th Floor, Committee Room 404, The Capitol, 400 S. Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL 32399

A copy of the agenda will be posted on the Insurance Consumer Advocate's web site at: http://www.myfloridacfo.com/ICA/. Public comments will be heard in the afternoon session. Those unable to attend the meeting may listen via conference call at dial-in number: (888) 808-6959, Conference Code: 4132880 or watch the roundtable on the Florida Channel’s web site at http://www.wfsu.org/tfc/index.php.

Participants of the Claims Dispute Resolution Roundtable include:

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’s Florida Housing Help initiative assists over 12,000 in 2009

As 2009 draws to a close, CFO Sink and the Division of Consumer Services would like to take this opportunity to thank our partners who made it possible to assist more than 12,000 Florida homeowners through the CFO’s Florida Housing Help workshops.

Since CFO Sink’s first Florida Housing Help workshop in January 2009, CFO Sink has held 79 workshops across the state.

On Wednesday evening, more than 70 homeowners attended a workshop in Fort Myers, with one couple driving all the way from Ft. Lauderdale to have the opportunity to speak to their lender face-to-face. /p>

CFO toured the City of West Palm Beach's Foreclosure Assistance Center and spoke with Mayor Lois Frankel about furthering efforts to keep Floridians in their homes and continuing to find solutions and resources for struggling homeowners.

To see more information about CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help initiative, visit http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/FloridaHousingHelp.

Upcoming Florida Housing Help events:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010, from 5:00-8:00 p.m. at the Joseph P. D’Alessandro Office Complex, 2295 Victoria Ave., Fort Myers.

Saturday, January 23, 2010, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at The University Area Community Development Center, 14013 North 22nd Street, Tampa.

Saturday, January 23, 2010, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Deltona City Hall, 2345 Providence Blvd., Deltona.


State Fire Marshal Sink's Florida State Fire College and University of Central Florida conduct innovative study to Improve Forensic Tools

University of Central Florida researchers and State Fire Marshal Sink's Florida State Fire Fire College will set four one-bedroom apartments on fire Thursday morning as part of an innovative study to improve the forensic tools arson investigators rely on throughout the nation.

UCF Chemistry Professor Michael Sigman and his students are working with Chief Barry Baker’s team from the Florida State Fire College and forensic scientists from the Florida Bureau Forensic Fire and Explosives Analysis on a research project that should give fire investigators and analysts a more precise way to determine if a fire has been set deliberately, even when the ignitable liquid is present at very low levels and virtually impossible to reliably detect by current methods.

The research project is funded with a two-year National Institute of Justice grant. The goal of this project is to create a new method, much like DNA, to determine exactly what started a fire and its exact origin.

Instructors at the Fire College created the “apartments” by taking four storage units and adding drywall, carpeting and furniture. One unit was utilized as a control and set on fire, while the other three were started using various common chemical fluids.

A team of forensic science graduate students will collect samples and bring them to UCF for analysis. In a few weeks the team expects to get results that could significantly enhance fire debris analysis around the nation.


Consumer Corner: Don’t forget to use your flexible spending balance before the end of the year

Now is the time of year when so many of us are filled with holiday spirit buzzing about in search of those last minute gifts for our loved ones. It’s easy to forget about yourself when doing things for others can bring you so much joy, but for those of you who have flexible spending accounts, don’t forget to shop for yourself and use up the balance before the end of the year.

If you’re not familiar with flexible spending accounts, they’re a way for you to set aside a specific dollar amount through your employer in a pre-tax sheltered account that can be used for medical expenses, thus reducing your income taxes. 

There are three types of health spending accounts available to help fund employee health care expenses: flexible spending accounts, health savings accounts (also known as health spending accounts), and health reimbursement arrangements.   One of the most important differences for consumers to be aware of is that savings accumulated in a flexible spending account must be spent by a certain annual deadline, often the end of the year, or the money is forfeited.  However, money left over in a health savings account will roll over.

If you aren’t sure how much you may have available, you can check with your employer or even some pharmacies who may have your balance information on file. And if you aren’t sure what items qualify for flexible spending, you can get a list from your employer or just visit pharmacies that stock items marked as flexible spending eligible. 

This is also a good opportunity to get your vision checked, get new glasses or contacts, or even have dental work done that you may have been putting off.  On average, most people with flexible spending accounts lose about $85 each year, so do your best to use it before you lose it.

For more information on flexible spending accounts and how they can help you, talk to your employer or visit the IRS web site at www.IRS.gov.


Saving Money, Saving Energy: How about putting worms to work for you?

Some people might think of worms as just a bunch of creepy crawlies but they can actually be very helpful members of your household when you put them to work on a worm farm. Worm farming is a simple, cost-effective way to turn food scraps from fruits, vegetables, breads and other food items into great potting soil for your garden or house plants. It’s also a green way to get rid of some of your garbage that can be done year round by apartment dwellers and home owners alike.

Worm farming is particularly useful for people who want to compost their food scraps but do not have space for a backyard compost bin. It’s also a great teaching opportunity for children to see how worms can eat food scraps and turn them back into clean smelling, highly nutritious earth. All you’ll need is a sturdy plastic container, some worms, food scraps, newspaper pages, water, a little bit of garden soil and a couple of crushed egg shells.

Read more here for all the details on how to get your own worm farm up and running.

Good luck on this new venture. It will definitely provide an interesting point of conversation at holiday parties, in addition to helping you grow better plants and reduce waste that might otherwise go into a landfill.


My Family CFO: Don't use your credit card for everything

Personal spending habits can contribute negatively to your credit standing, according to the author of Credit Card Nation, Dr. Robert Manning. Don't make the following charges to your credit card if you want to stay in good standing with your bank or credit card company.

Traffic tickets. Don't pay a traffic ticket on your credit card. According to Dr. Manning, traffic tickets can make you look like a risk taker and can push up your insurance rates, making it harder to pay other bills like credit cards. For banks, that can be a red flag.

Cash advances. Banks and credit card companies look harder at people who need to borrow money on their credit cards, which is not good for your credit line.

Alcohol or bar bills. Manning says credit card companies see back-to-back bar bills or alcohol charges as a sign of stress. Whether the stress is over money or your job, your credit line may lessen to help relieve their stress.

Changes in shopping habits. Suddenly shopping at the dollar store could signal a change in financial status. American Express wrote to one customer that it would be lowering a credit limit after "carefully reviewing the spending and debt profiles of our card member." Frugality can pay off these days, but you may want to pay cash.

Keep in close touch with your finances by checking out your credit reports on a regular basis.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's Consumer eViews 1-877-MY-FL-CFO