Florida spends millions on questionable mobile home program

Dec 11, 2011

The following article was published in The St. Petersburg Times on December 11, 2011:

Florida Spends Millions on Questionable Mobile Home Program

By Kris Hundley 

Over the past dozen years, Florida has spent more than $33 million putting anchors under aging mobile homes to keep them from blowing away.

The program, free to homeowners, was supposed to make thousands of outdated mobile homes safer in the next storm.

Don’t count on it.

Of the more than 23,000 mobile homes retrofitted so far, few appear to have received enough anchors to bring them up to the state’s tough safety standards.

Mobile homes requiring a dozen or more new tie-downs instead got just a handful. And state-mandated devices that keep a home from sliding end to end were not always installed.

Homeowners, many elderly, received letters signed by the contractor leading them to believe their retrofitted homes met today’s standards.

They did not.

Critics call the program a waste. Ken Cashin thinks otherwise. He’s the Tallahassee businessman and mobile home lobbyist who sat on a state committee that designed the program in 1999.

Cashin helped craft terms of the program, then quit the advisory committee to create a company that bid on the work. His company became the state’s only retrofitter and has held the contract for 11 years.

Despite some homeowners’ expectations, the program does not require Cashin’s company to make old mobile homes comply with today’s installation standards. Instead, it lets the company determine how many anchoring devices can be installed.

The state pays Cashin’s company $1,330 for each home whether his workers install one tie-down or 10.

State inspectors randomly check the retrofitted properties to see if equipment is installed correctly. But they do not determine whether the number of anchors meets state rules.

Nor does anything prevent crews from anchoring decrepit homes that have little hope of surviving a storm even with the best tie-downs in the world.

Last spring, a 41-year-old mobile home in Clearwater with a leak-stained ceiling and jalousie windows propped open with sticks got 10 new anchors and two stabilizing devices. The state spent $1,330; the mobile home is for sale for $4,000.

Cashin, who has been in the mobile home business for nearly 40 years, argues that doing anything to anchor older homes is better than nothing and that many of his retrofitted homes have stayed on their foundations during storms.

“There’s a story here, but it’s a good story of a successful program run correctly,” Cashin said. “It’s a great service to lots of seniors, and I’ve never had a single complaint.”

The tie-down effort has one high-profile critic. Jack Nicholson is chief operating officer of the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which reimburses insurers a portion of their catastrophic losses in the event of a hurricane.

As part of a 1995 agreement with the IRS, the Cat Fund is exempt from federal taxes if it gives the state $10 million each year to “harden” properties so they can better withstand hurricanes. The money comes from insurance premiums paid by all homeowners. Nearly $3 million a year goes to the mobile home tie-down program.

Nicholson said it doesn’t make sense to spend nearly 30 percent of the money on mobile homes, which represent less than 2 percent of the state’s total insurance risk.

“It’s a little disproportionate,” Nicholson said. “But it was recognized a long time ago that certain politicians were able to put money in for that program.”

The retrofit program was renewed last spring for another decade, with Cashin’s company awarded the contract in November over two other bidders.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, the Republican who sponsored the original legislation in 1999 as well as the renewal, said the retro­fit program helps keep mobile homeowners safe.

Nearly half of the homes retro­fitted over the past decade are in the Tampa Bay area, which encompasses Latvala’s district.

“It’s just a couple of million dollars a year,” Latvala said.

The insider

In the world of mobile homes, Cashin is one of Florida’s most powerful figures.

Until 2006, he owned one of the biggest mobile home supply companies in a state with more than 850,000 mobile homes.

For almost 30 years, he has been legislative chairman and lobbyist for the industry’s trade group, which has given nearly $1.5 million to politicians since 2000. Cashin, 61, is also former chairman and a current board member of the Seminole Boosters, which raises money for Florida State University athletics.

In June 1999, the mobile home trade association picked Cashin as its representative when state officials were deciding how to use Cat Fund money to protect homes from storms.

The Department of Community Affairs gave Tallahassee Community College responsibility for administering the tie-down program because it expected to take control of a vocational school where retro­fitters could be trained. Cashin and other appointees to an advisory committee designed the details of the program.

According to committee meeting minutes, in August 1999 Cashin wrote the technical report outlining how the retrofitting program should operate. Several of his recommendations became part of the bid.

Two months later, Cashin resigned from the committee and formed Windstorm Mitigation Inc., which bid on the retrofit contract.

“After looking at the whole thing, I decided we were the best ones to do the program,” he said recently.

Cashin said he consulted a private attorney at the time and was told he could bid even if he stayed on the committee. He opted to resign first.

Though the work was to be done statewide, the contract opening was advertised just once, in the Tallahassee Democrat. It attracted two bidders; Cashin’s company won.

Soon after signing the contract, Cashin hired a project manager: John MacDonald, who had just retired as head of the state’s mobile home bureau. MacDonald also had been on the committee that designed the retrofit program.

A few months later, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating a complaint about the state’s mobile home bureau. A mobile home installer in the Panhandle had accused MacDonald of having questionable relationships with some manufacturers and organizations while he was the state’s top mobile home regulator.

The FDLE found no evidence of wrongdoing. But it noted that a DCA employee raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest with Cashin’s company being selected as contractor for the tie-down program.

When the FDLE report was released, DCA’s then-secretary, Steven Seibert, took the program away from the college in 2000 and split the year’s contract among several vendors, including Cashin.

But by 2001, lawmakers had passed a bill requiring DCA to use “a public higher education institution” to administer the program. Tallahassee Community College reclaimed the program, and Cashin’s company became the sole contractor once again.

The contract calls for the college to get $150,000 a year for administering the $2.8 million annual contract. The contractor gets the remaining $2.65 million.

Spotty work

Annette Dublino never thought much about how her tidy beige single-wide was strapped to the ground when it was installed back in 1970.

Despite having just a handful of anchors, her home has not moved an inch in 41 years.

Then, last spring, Cashin’s crews showed up in her Largo park to enlist homeowners in the voluntary tie-down program.

Dublino said one of Cashin’s managers told residents at a meeting that the state might soon require old mobile homes like hers to meet standards created in 1999 for newly installed mobile homes. She said they also told her she would not be able to get insurance if her home was not retrofitted.

Like most of her neighbors, she signed up for the program rather than risk paying for tie-downs herself later.

Once the work was done, Dublino never bothered to look under her home to see how many anchors had been added.

But she was sure about one thing.

“They told us it would bring our homes up to code,” said Dublino, who also got the form letter signed by Cashin suggesting as much. “And they said if it wasn’t up to code, we couldn’t sell our homes.”

So Dublino was miffed when she was told recently that her home did not have enough tie-downs to meet today’s standards. Only nine new anchors had been installed on her single-wide home, four in the front, where a concrete porch blocked part of the access, and five in the back. Based on her home’s 56-foot length, state rules would require about 10 anchors on each side — one every 5 feet, 4 inches.

Nor did the work crew install stabilizing devices, one at each end, gripping the underlying I-beams.

“There’s plenty of room to get under there,” Dublino said. “I just had guys under there working on the air conditioning.”

No one knows for sure how many retrofitted homes still have outdated anchoring like Dublino’s. Nor does anyone audit the contractor’s work or record the number of tie-downs used on each home. But evidence suggests that most of the retrofitted homes fall short of today’s standards.

A competitor of Cashin’s, Rob Boulware of MBW Joint Venture in Orlando, said he has visited more than 250 homes that got new tie-downs through the program. He said none of the homes comply with state anchoring rules.

The St. Petersburg Times asked a supervisor with the state’s mobile home bureau and an inspector for the Federal Housing Administration to review Cashin’s retrofits on eight randomly selected homes at parks in Pinellas and Polk counties.

Andrew Shirley, who has inspected hundreds of mobile homes for the FHA, found only one home at a park in Lakeland that he felt met Florida’s anchoring requirements. But that home had been retrofitted by another private company before Cashin’s crew added more equipment.

“It’s like they had to justify their fee so they put anchors wherever they could,” Shirley said of the work on a 20-year-old mobile home at Hickory Hills park. “It didn’t need them.” Three other homes retrofitted by Cashin’s company fell short of today’s standards, he said.

That did not surprise Shirley. None of the homes retrofitted by Cashin’s company that he has inspected for FHA over the past five years has been anchored sufficiently to meet the mortgage insurer’s requirements.

“We have gone into parks where the state program was done and had people get irate with us when we tell them it’s not up to code,” said Shirley, owner of H.A.S. Inspections in Lithia. “What they’ve done is put in a few anchors and straps and then say it’s up to code. But it’s a waste of money. If this were their home, they’d insist it be done right.”

Cashin himself concedes his workers do not bring the homes up to code, and he says they do not make such promises.

“There’s not a home out there that can be retrofitted to meet the letter of 15c,” he said, referring to the state rule governing mobile home installations. “This is not a code compliance program, it’s a property protection program.”

Cashin said older mobile homes are often too low to allow workers to slide stabilizers under I-beams. Water pipes and electrical cables prevent anchors from being placed where required. Sun porches, utility sheds and concrete steps block access to crawl space. Cashin said home­owners are even told if cars or lawn chairs are in workers’ way, they will skip the area.

“I have to run a program that respects the residents’ homes and respects my workers’ safety,” he said.

Though Cashin signs the letter to homeowners saying their retrofitted homes “substantially” meet state standards, he said that’s not necessarily the case.

“Quite frankly, that letter probably should be changed,” he said. “When I look at a home, I know where you can put an anchor in and when you can’t. And by contract, we are the final arbiter of that.”

The arrangement severely limits the powers of state officials.

On a recent visit to Japanese Gardens, a mobile home park in Clearwater, Wayne Jordan assessed the work Cashin’s crew did last spring. Of four homes, Jordan found only one with stabilizing devices. Jordan is the supervisor of the state’s manufactured housing section with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in Tampa.

Though the homes were of similar age and length, the number of new anchors varied widely, from four to 11.

Peering under a home where new anchors were about eight feet apart and no stabilizers had been installed, Jordan said, “We don’t measure it off to see if the anchors are every 5 foot, 4 inches. We can’t do anything about it anyway.”

Asked if the retrofitted homes in Japanese Gardens “substantially” met the state’s standards, as homeowners were told, Jordan said, “I can’t go there.”

Storm warnings

When it comes to protecting mobile homes from high winds, adequate anchors are only part of the equation — and maybe not even the most important part. When flimsy carports are attached at the roof line, even a stable home can become a total loss.

Last March, a storm system roared in from the Gulf of Mexico and tore across the middle of Pinellas County. Directly in the path of powerful winds and hop-scotching tornados was a Largo mobile home park that had been retrofitted by Cashin’s company several years ago.

Most retrofitted homes stayed put during the storm. But some were damaged or destroyed when high winds lifted the carport, which peeled back the roof like a can-opener.

After surveying storm damage from the 2004 hurricane season, Jordan, the state’s inspector, wrote: “Attachment structures were the most vulnerable part of a mobile home and in many cases, when the attachment fails, it damages the home itself.”

FEMA reviewed how retrofitted homes fared in the multiple hurricanes of 2004, visiting six parks across the state. It found that none of the retrofitted homes appeared to be damaged because of anchor failure.

“This does not mean, however, that all structures survived,” the report said. “They did not.” Uprooted carports and flying debris still ripped off roofs and demolished retrofitted homes.

In 2006 and 2007, the state tried to address the issue, spending $22.5 million to strengthen mobile home carports and replace windows. The program lost funding in 2008.

Based on its findings after the 2004 storms, FEMA suggested the state consider whether putting a few anchors on old mobile homes is really cost effective.

Cashin believes the hurricanes proved the value of retrofitting, regardless of the number of anchors or age of the home.

“Worrying about whether this is cost effective doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Profit margin

In his bid for the 2011-12 contract, Cashin submitted figures showing how his company has fared financially. In 2010, Windstorm Mitigation Holdings, of which Cashin is president and chief executive, reported $2.9 million in sales, with “substantially all sales with one major customer.”

The company reported $2.2 million in gross profit.

Gross profit typically is the money left over after paying for materials and the workers doing the job, but before paying overhead and taxes.

By his company’s own reporting, Windstorm had nearly a 74 percent gross profit margin last year.

Cashin declined to comment on the profitability of his company. He said the 2010 financial statement “encompassed more than just the profit from the TCC (Tallahassee Community College) contract.” He declined to say how much was attributable to other sources.

Last month, Cashin’s company was awarded another five-year contract for the tie-down program. For the first time, the company will be paid according to the number of anchoring devices he installs, up to a maximum of $1,600 per home. His proposal calls for him to receive $60 for each anchoring system and $65 for stabilizing devices. Those figures are supposed to include materials, labor, profit and overhead.

That means that for the nine anchors on Dublino’s home, which paid him $1,330 under the previous contract, the company would have received $540. A home in Japanese Gardens that got four anchors would have resulted in a check for $240, or $1,090 less than his check last spring.

While his reimbursement for each home may go down, the new arrangement gives Cashin’s company $15,250, nearly five times as much as he gets currently, for each mobile home park he processes for the program. Last year he worked with 16 parks.

Though Boulware’s company is challenging the latest award, Cashin is eager to get going on the contract. He figures most of the 850,000 mobile homes in Florida are in need of at least a few more anchors.

“We’ve only done about 20,000,” Cashin said. “So there’s a large need for this program to continue.”

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