Florida is going backwards

Nov 13, 2007

St. Petersburg Times, 11/13/2007

Property insurance rates are about to turn John Melkun into a Pasco County refugee, as he considers following in his brother’s footsteps to sink new roots in South Carolina.

Melkun is among Floridians who say the state is headed down the wrong track, a group that outnumbered those who say the state is on the right track, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll. ‘Florida is going backwards. The Legislature and the state, they talk and talk and talk, and they move slower than a snail,’ said Melkun, 60, a retired construction worker whose State Farm premium increased from $900 to $4,700 this year.

While frustrated, most Floridians don’t appear to blame Gov. Charlie Crist. His popularity has slipped some, with 57 percent of those polled saying he is doing a good or excellent job. In May, a similar poll done for the St. Petersburg Times by the same companies showed about 62 percent of those polled gave Crist high marks.

But overall, Crist’s job approval ratings remain strong. He even drew favorable ratings from 51 percent of Democrats polled, putting him in a ‘unique situation for a governor with an R after his name,’ said pollster Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Co., which works with Republicans. ‘They may not like property tax rates, home insurance rates. They may not like President Bush, the situation in Iraq. They actually may not like some of the candidates running for president,’ Conway said. ‘But they like Charlie Crist.’ She also noted that Crist did particularly well with African-Americans polled, 50 percent of whom approved of his performance. By contrast, he earned high marks from 42 percent of Hispanics, a group that overwhelmingly supported former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Yet pollster Thom Eldon noted that Crist’s popularity should be much higher within his own party: Republicans gave him a 62 percent approval rating. ‘It’s pretty shocking the lack of support Crist is able to garner in his own party,’ said Eldon of Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats.

When it comes to property taxes and insurance, voters are still waiting for relief, they say.

The Legislature spent much of this year trying to alleviate escalating property insurance and taxes that have helped sink Florida’s real estate market. In the poll, 48 percent cited property insurance and property taxes as the biggest pinch to their wallets. Insurance barely edged out property taxes for first place, with gas prices in third place followed by health care.

Last month, the Legislature agreed to give voters a chance to approve a constitutional amendment aimed at cutting property taxes, but most polled (77 percent) ranked the Legislature’s property tax performance as ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’ This year, the Legislature passed a complex package aimed at cutting insurance rates. Yet, 77 percent of registered voters said they think recent property insurance reforms will cut their rates ‘very little’ or ‘not at all.’ Melkun is one of those who has yet to see relief. His brother Bill Melkun also lived in Pasco County and left Florida because of high insurance rates, but John Melkun said he plans to wait one more year to ‘see which direction this state is going,’ before he decides whether to leave.

Three years ago, Eleanor Blaschka, 85, traded a bigger house in Maitland for a ‘cute but nothing spectacular’ three-bedroom home in South Tampa to live next door to her son. Her property tax bill is now $5,000 and her insurance bill had been only $1,300, before her insurer, AFIE (Armed Forces Insurance Exchange) dropped her. She’s not quite sure what she’ll do now. ‘I don’t know how people survive here,’ said Blaschka, who decided she’s not going to pay her property taxes early this year in hopes the price tag goes down. ‘I’m sort of on the fence about our future. My taxes didn’t go down. My insurer dropped me,’ but she added that she thinks the governor and Legislature are trying.

The telephone survey of 800 registered voters was conducted Nov. 4 to Nov. 7 for a coalition of media outlets, including the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon & Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats, and the Polling Company, which mainly works with Republicans. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percent overall.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.