Let’s start insurance talks now

By Steve Estes

Most of the time, Monroe County’s Board of County Commissioners conducts its financial affairs in a fiscally conservative fashion that avoids huge tax increases to the residents of this island chain.

There have been exceptions, and the populace worked hard to toss those folks from office.

The seated commission has overall been a good one in terms of leveling the tax burden.

And we hope that doesn’t change. We hear talk of a possible move to institute a one-cent sales tax for fire rescue services, or maybe using that one cent for land acquisitions, and we can’t say we are dead set against sales taxes for those uses.

But it isn’t taxes that are going to be the death knell of the middle class in Monroe County.

It may well be insurance.

Windstorm insurance has been steadily rising for property owners here, even though there is little evidence the increases are warranted.

And now there is the distinct possibility that flood insurance premiums will rise, drastically, for many properties in the Keys.

The few dollars a month that we get tagged for property taxes will be the proverbial drop in the bucket against the hundreds of dollars per month additional to cover insurance costs, insurance that is mandated by the federal (flood) or state (wind) in order to qualify for a mortgage.

With the potential rises in flood insurance hitting older homes and ground-level homes disproportionately harder that others, and many of those homes being those owned and/or lived in by the young family just starting out or the elderly living on retirement income, staying in the Keys might become a sacrifice some aren’t willing to make any longer.

The grass roots advocacy group Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe (FIRM) has been fighting unjustifiable increases in windstorm premiums for several years. It appears the group may now take up the mantle of flood insurance as well.

We hope so.

FIRM has, for the most part, largely continued its fight without the aid of government in the Keys, subsisting on grants where available and on private donations.

But with the potential financial disaster that looms for so many property owners in the Keys, we could actually support a tax increase that goes toward aiding FIRM in its fights for all of us.

That is a subject that hasn’t yet hit the front burner, but we can hope that someone at the top levels of our government can see past sewers and roads and bridges and canals and buildings and the myriad other issues that face us, to begin putting together a coordinated effort to protect everyone from financial ruin at the hands of insurance premiums.

FIRM is currently in the midst of a study that is supposed to determine if the windstorm rates being charged here are actuarial sound, or if, as most of us think, we are simply a small voting bloc that is doomed to act as a donor county for other, larger voting bloc counties.

The study might also push our leadership into considering breaking off from the state insurer Citizens and going it on our own. We have advocated that in the past and continue to believe that it will be the right move in the long run to stave off  a mass exodus of those who live on the fringe.

And make no mistake, even though folks elsewhere in the state believe we are a bunch of rich folks playing house, there is little truth to that statement.

Perhaps when we consider breaking off from Citizens and going it alone on windstorm insurance, and that is a conversation that must take place at some point, we can also consider breaking off from the National Flood Insurance Program and going it alone on flood insurance.

The premiums paid by Monroe County homeowners to both those programs outstrip any payout made to property owners here after any storm.

In short, both the state and the feds make a profit on us.

Why don’t we look at making that profit for us instead?

Instead of our tax dollars going to pay increased windstorm and flood insurance costs every year for Monroe County, we could watch that money put into the insurance pool that covers all of Monroe County.

While we haven’t researched the legal ramifications, we find it hard to believe that we can’t find a way to provide our own people with adequate disaster coverage and keep the money at home.

We have to think of something innovative because we feel as though the rash of empty homes that could be left behind by double and triple-digit premium increases for both windstorm and flood insurance will be much worse for the county than privately insuring ourselves.

Let’s open the conversation. Can’t hurt.

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