Florida Keys News
Sunday, March 10, 2013
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Public officials visit the Capitol
Citizens rates, funds for sewers top list

From windstorm insurance to wastewater funding, there are several state bills that, if passed, have major and costly consequences for the Florida Keys.

The state Legislature's session started Tuesday in Tallahassee.

Members of the local property insurance advocacy group Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM) are closely watching several pieces of legislation, including a state Senate bill that would give Monroe County and Miami-Dade County representation on the board that oversees Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state insurer of last resort.

SB 1428 -- sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami -- requires Citizens to expand its eight-member board to include two consumer representatives from Monroe and Miami-Dade counties.

Currently, there are no consumer representatives. The board is primarily made up of lawyers and former insurance company executives, FIRM board member and County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said.

"It makes a lot of sense to have representation in Monroe and Miami-Dade, as those are the ones bearing the brunt of the rate increases," Carruthers said.

SB 1428 was introduced on March 1 and referred Thursday to the Senate Banking and Insurance and the Community Affairs subcommittees.

FIRM has spent years fighting what it calls unnecessary rate increases by Citizens. Carruthers discussed the issue with Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Thursday, when a contingent of Keys leaders traveled to Tallahassee to discuss the Keys' designation as an Area of Critical State Concern.

She relayed a story about how a small condo home-owners association is facing a major rate increase in its condo fees because of Citizens Insurance rate increases.

The individual condos fees are going from roughly $500 a month to $900 a month, she said, forcing some to sell their homes.

Carruthers, other FIRM members and Keys state House Rep. Holly Raschein will meet with Citizens executives next week to discuss rates and the model that sets the rate.

Earlier this month, Raschein wrote Citizens' President Barry Gilway, questioning why the company eliminated builder's risk policies last year.

Builder's risk policies provide contractor insurance coverage for homes and buildings under construction. Raschein reiterated the impact that a lack of builder's risk coverage has had on Monroe County and asked the company to consider offering builder's risk coverage for areas where there are no reasonable private market options.

More sewer funding

One of the biggest pieces of legislation Keys officials will be tracking will be the budget, as it will determine if the Keys receive another $50 million in wastewater project funding. The Keys received $50 million last year, as part of $200 million the state Legislature allocated the Keys in 2007.

County Administrator Roman Gastesi was also in Tallahassee for the Florida Cabinet meeting Thursday and took the opportunity to lobby for the additional $50 million.

In another wastewater-related bill, Raschein has introduced a measure that would reinstate an annual cost of living raise that was once in place for Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District commissioners. HB 1403 would also give commissioners an immediate 27 percent raise to make up for the years since 2002, in which the salary adjustments were not made.

Automatic annual cost of living raises are not a perk enjoyed by other Keys governing bodies, including the Monroe County Commission, the Islamorada Village Council and the Marathon City Council. Raschein said she put the measure forward in response to a wastewater board vote in January, adding that no one has contacted her with objections.

The bill would also clean up procedures under which the Key Largo district replaces commissioners who resign. Last year, Commissioner Susan Hammaker's resignation in August set off a disorganized replacement process that raised the ire of Gov. Rick Scott's office and almost forced the district to call a special election not long after the November general elections.

The bill was given a first reading on Tuesday.

Targeting local utilities

State House Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, is proposing a bill that would give the state Public Service Commission greater control over rates imposed by utilities such as Keys Energy Services.

HB 733 would make municipal utilities subject to regulation by the Public Service Commission if they provide services outside of their municipality.

The bill would impact Key West-based Keys Energy Services, as its board is elected by Key West residents only, even though the agency provides power up to the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge.

Keys Energy Services and the Florida Municipal Electric Association say HB 733 would eliminate home rule and could result in power bill increases.

Keys Energy Services spokesman Julio Barroso called the bill "a serious proposal" that "could eliminate local control and raise electric bills."

Currently, municipal utilities are regulated at the local level by local governing boards.

"The (Keys Energy Services) Utility Board is empowered to set rates for its customers," Barroso said.

"They hold local workshops and public hearings to approve the budget and the rates. The public has the opportunity to attend, comment and influence decisions, and unlike investor-owned utilities, (Keys Energy Services) doesn't need the Public Service Commission to be involved in rate setting from Tallahassee."

The bill could result in additional travel costs and the expense of hiring attorneys to present rate cases before the commission, which is based in Tallahassee, Barroso said.

The bill would not impact the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, as its board has representation throughout the Keys, agency Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said.

The bill was given a first reading on Tuesday.

Appointed to elected

Raschein has also filed a bill that would change the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority from a governor-appointed board to an elected body.

HB 1321 was given its first reading on Tuesday.

In November, residents overwhelmingly voted to change the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority from a governor-appointed board to an elected body.

Then-Keys state Rep. Ken Sorensen sponsored similar legislation in 2005, which was designed to take control of wastewater projects from the public utility and place it in the hands of Monroe County and Keys municipalities.

The bill passed both in the state House and Senate, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

tohara@keysnews.com

rsilk@keysnews.com

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