As Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM) gears up to battle skyrocketing flood insurance rates, the group has hired its first full-time executive director -- Charles "Chic" Wagner.
"Punitive insurance rates are the greatest threat to our economy," Wagner said. "If we don't push our leaders to solve this, homeowners' equity will evaporate. It will impact our local economy like nothing we have seen to date."
Wagner, formerly a Boston attorney specializing in employment law, joined the FIRM board in 2012 and has been assisting the group with contract negotiations, advocacy and public outreach.
"Chic's skill set, passion and knowledge will help FIRM realize their goals in 2014 and beyond," said Vice Chair Cindy DeRocher, who served on the selection committee. She was an original founder of FIRM in 2006, when the group was set up to battle rising windstorm insurance rates from the state's provider of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
The FIRM board recently agreed to also fight hikes in National Flood Insurance Program premiums, as substantial increases started to go into effect on Oct. 1. FIRM has taken an active role in an effort to repeal or amend the Biggert-Waters Act, the federal legislation that prompted the flood insurance rate increases for coastal communities.
The rate hikes are affecting the real estate market across the state. It is cumulative, as homeowners can't afford the new rates but also can't sell their homes, because most people won't buy homes with such hefty annual insurance costs.
"This is a crisis," Wagner said. "This whole place could sink."
Monroe County Legislative Affairs Director Lisa Tennyson provided recent examples of the dramatic rate hikes.
In one case, the annual premium for a $228,000 Lower Keys home went from $1,860 last year to $6,473 this year, according to a flood renewal notice in which coverage expires next month. In another case, in which the value of the home was not stated on the renewal notice, flood insurance went from $1,707 a year in 2013 to $7,272 for 2014.
FIRM is in the midst of a comprehensive windstorm study in an effort to get an accurate analysis of windstorm risk and costs to Monroe County properties.
"We believe our study will prove Citizens is charging rates that are not based on sound numbers," said Annalise Mannix, Key West engineer and FIRM's project manager for the study.
The $485,000 study is being funded by Citizens Property Insurance, with the hope that a new, more accurate analysis will result in a more attractive market for private insurers. Currently, Citizens Insurance provides windstorm coverage for 91 percent of Florida Keys properties.
On Wednesday night, FIRM will hold a workshop with the city of Key West Historical Architectural Review Commission about allowing modern, hurricane-grade windows in the Old Town historic district.
"FIRM is firing on all fronts of the property insurance crisis -- on a local and state perspective, and now also on a federal level," said FIRM Chairwoman and Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers. "Chic has the chops to help take us there."