Since returning from the nation's capital with fellow Southwest Florida officials to discuss flood insurance rate hikes with aides of key figureheads late last week, Beach Mayor Alan Mandel has had a chance to reflect on a fruitful trip that may have a positive effect on possible legislation next week.
Mandel visited Washington D.C. with Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki, Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, assistant County Manager Glen Salyer and insurance expert Chris Heidrick last week. The group had set meetings with aides representing mainly House members from states beyond Florida.
The discussions centered on the U.S. Senate's recently passed Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act. Since then, U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced the House will "consider a modified version of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act" during the week of Feb. 24. House officials are currently on a week-long President's Day recess.
"A lot of thanks has to go to Commissioner Kiker for organizing the trip and forming a good group of local representatives, because we don't have a national representative right now (House Dist. 19 seat is currently empty) and thus no one to go around supporting our position," said Mandel. "We spoke to aides of some Senators but mostly House members from outside of Florida. Hopefully, we made an impression on them. We have cautious optimism."
Mandel believes he attended roughly 20 meetings and stated he spoke to officials from Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, South Carolina and Georgia. Due to inclement weather that grounded their air flights back home, many of the Southwest Florida officials stayed an extra day and set up additional meetings. Personally, Mandel did not arrive back home until 7 p.m. Thursday, after the nation's capital buildings were closed down earlier that day due to weather.
"We got the word out," he said. "I would say that almost all but one were certainly hearing what we were saying and getting the various positions that would help us. The last thing we want is people who work hard all of their lives and live down here now not being able to afford to remain at their house, especially with people on fixed incomes."
On Jan. 30, the U.S. Senate voted for rate-hike relief for millions of homeowners across the country covered by the National Flood Insurance Program. That bill, which has language to delay large premium increases for up to four years for those coastal property owners affected due to updated government flood maps, is now in House committees. During a proposed delay, FEMA, the country's disaster agency, would be required to study the affordability of policies and re-evaluate the accuracy of new flood maps.
According to a report from Cantor's office, the House plans on making its own changes to the bill, however.
"The Senate bill irresponsibly removes much needed reforms and imposes additional costs on taxpayers," he stated. "The House will act to protect the flood insurance program but also protect homeowners from unreasonable and unrealistic premium increases."
Mandel said all but one official he spoke to was "willing to consider delays of some amount of time," but concerns involve the NFIP reconsideration process within a five-year span.
"That was some of the reasons why some of the House members were a little concerned about the four-year delay," he said.
The higher flood rates are the result of Congress having passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. It was intended to make the flood insurance program more financially sound. The program was in a downward spiral exacerbated by damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It currently has a $24 million debt.
Mandel said some points that resonated to the officials focused on money the state has contributed to the NFIP and the program's viability itself.
"We stressed the point that Florida has certainly contributed $16 billion to the program and taken out less than $4 billion," he said. "Most of the problem is really Katrina, which was possibly a lack of funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the levees were strong and not necessarily the storm per se.
"Another thing that we mentioned was the fact that people in Florida can have a $30,000 deductible on their wind insurance but, by law and banking regulations, are limited to only $2,000 deduction on flood insurance. Certainly, anyone looking at a $30,000 flood insurance premium right now probably would rather self-insure for $30,000 that maybe once in his or her lifetime has to come up with it rather than every single year."