Inspection Ads Omit Key Facts About Savings

Mar 19, 2008

The Tampa Tribune–Mar. 19, 2008

TAMPA – A new $1.06 million My Safe Florida Home advertising campaign tells homeowners statewide that applying for a free hurricane wind inspection could save them money.

It’s what the television and radio commercials don’t say, however, that has state Rep. Kevin Ambler looking to make a change.

The advertisements – which begin with the line, "How fast can you save money?" – don’t mention that the potential savings are based largely on anecdotal evidence, not verified examples.

The commercials say that thousands of residents who have received a free inspection have qualified for an average discount of about $200 on their wind insurance premiums.

"We’re not saying it’s guaranteed savings," said Kevin Cate, deputy communications director for state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whose office runs My Safe Florida Home. "We’re saying thousands of people are qualifying, which they are."

The ad campaign also doesn’t mention the matching grant portion of the state program. The omission is intentional, Cate said, because the focus of the ads is on the inspections and the potential savings.

The program uses the free inspection to determine what, if any, discounts individual homeowners qualify for and then gives them a form to submit to their insurance company.

In reality, officials have no idea how many have submitted the form or received a discount.

The Tampa Tribune in February, through a public records request, found just 17 homeowners who had informed the state of receiving a discount. But not everyone said how much they saved, making it impossible to determine an average discount.

Cate said the program is not required by the Legislature to track that data. But Ambler said that may change.

Ambler, R-Lutz, is working with other state lawmakers to craft an amendment to the My Safe Florida Home legislation that could help make the program more accountable.

Ambler said the Legislature could require insurance companies to provide an annual report listing how many policyholders received a discount as a result of My Safe Florida Home and the average discount received.

The report, he said, could show that very few people are applying for the discounts. Or it could show that a lot of people have received a discount but the actual savings is not significant.

"I think it will help us to identify and ask the right questions," he said. "Then we can make decisions based on verifiable information, instead of guesses."

Limiting Grants

When My Safe Florida Home was created in 2006, it was a two-prong effort designed to help residents statewide identify features of their houses that could be strengthened against future storms, and to offer matching grants of up to $5,000 to make the improvements.

In order to apply for a grant, people first had to receive a free inspection.

Less than a year later, program officials were downplaying grants, in part because state lawmakers had dramatically changed eligibility criteria. They limited grant dollars to people who lived in homes insured for $300,000 or less that were located inside the wind-borne debris region, a coastal area of sustained high winds that stretches about a mile inland.

The changes eliminated scores of residents across the state from applying for financial assistance, including almost all of Hillsborough County.

Efforts to amend those changes have not been successful.

On March 4, a bill proposed by state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, was changed in committee to remove language that would have grandfathered in 7,728 homeowners who were unable to apply for a grant because they didn’t receive their requested free inspection before the criteria change.

The reason Justice’s bill was changed: Money.

Short Of Goal

Program officials have spent about $211 million of the $250 million allocated by the Legislature. The program is still far short of its goal of completing 400,000 free inspections by June 2009. The inspections, which cost the state about $140 apiece, are far cheaper than the grants, which can go up to $5,000 apiece.

To date, My Safe Florida Home has received about 210,000 inspection requests. Of those, about 38,000 remain to be completed.

Yet, on March 10, the new advertising campaign was launched to solicit more inspection requests. It was paid for out of the legislative allocation.

The two 30-second commercials cost about $68,000 to produce, according to Cate. The program spent about $1 million to buy airtime in major television and radio markets across Florida.

Justice and Ambler said it sends a mixed message to seek new customers when other residents are being denied the chance to seek help to improve their homes.

Changing Web Site

Ambler also criticized the decision by officials to leave out any mention of the matching grants, which has been a key component of My Safe Florida Home since its inception.

Cate said the ad campaign isn’t trying to get anyone to apply for a grant. And, he said, grants may no longer be offered after May 1.

Officials expect that they will have met a goal set by the Legislature of awarding 35,000 hurricane-improvement grants. To date, about 19,604 homeowners have been approved for a grant.

The ad campaign should be clearer, Ambler said.

"They need to add on there that they’re encouraging these inspections," he said, "but make a disclosure that funds are limited for grants on a first-come, first-served basis."

Last week, Cate said that the My Safe Florida Home Web site clearly stated this. A review of the Web site, however, found no such description.

On Monday, less than an hour after being told that a newspaper story would make that point, Cate had the Web site updated to include, in bold print, a disclaimer that grants are limited and may stop as of May 1.

My Safe Florida Home has yet to receive additional money to pay for more grants, and likely won’t during the current legislative session.

But Ambler said that in order to consider future funding, lawmakers need to require more scrutiny while the remaining $39 million is spent.

He said he supported Justice’s bill and thinks the issue will be discussed again before the session ends in May. He said he’s not convinced that all 7,728 people would request a grant.

More than that, he wants to establish outside oversight that continually reviews everything from inspection accuracy to financial accountability.

"I think we need to revisit the issue of how we deal with folks who played by the rules, followed the rules and now feel like they have been put to the back of the bus," Ambler said. "That sends the wrong message, and really it goes to putting a black mark on the integrity of the program."