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County staff takes on flood insurance issue
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Larry Arrington, director of Strategic Planning and Initiatives, tells Pinellas County Commissioners Oct. 8 what staff is doing to identify actions that could help mitigate the adverse effect of Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act of 2012.
CLEARWATER – As local property owners and the real estate market struggle to cope with the backlash of federal flood insurance reform, Pinellas County staff is working on ways to help reduce the pain of rising rates.

Oct. 1 came and went, and the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill delaying implementation of Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act of 2012. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July delaying implementation of the act for one year.

Now, many property owners with subsidized policies from the National Flood Insurance Program are facing rate increases of 25 percent annually until their rate reflects true risk. Those who are not currently dealing with increased costs are unable to sell their homes due to exorbitant rates new property owners would have to pay. The real estate market is reeling with reports of lost sales coming in from all over the county.

Larry Arrington, director of Strategic Planning and Initiatives, told Pinellas County Commissioners Oct. 8 that staff was exploring options and working to identify actions at the administrative level that could help mitigate the adverse effect of BW-12.

Congress passed BW-12 in an attempt to reduce the debt of the NFIP after claims outpaced revenue following Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Tropical Storm Debby and super-storm Sandy. BW-12 affects all the major components of the FEMA administered program, including insurance rates, flood maps, grant programs and flood plain management plans.

Arrington explained that FEMA plays a critical role in assessing flood risk and creation of a flood plain map that reflects risk in geographical areas. That map directly affects insurance rates, he said.

“It’s a very involved process,” he said, which includes not only risk from flooding but protective measures taken in a community, type of land use and other factors.

Pinellas County uses FEMA’s map when it considers zoning changes and regulations within a flood plain. The map plays a factor in economic development plans. It provides guidance with disaster and evacuation planning, among other things.

“Pinellas is ground zero for this problem with 50,000 subsidized policies, more than any other county in the nation,” he said. “If we develop a first class flood plain management plan, we will have a better community rating with a direct bearing on rates.

Gordon Beardslee, administrator of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Department, said flood plain management was a voluntary program that most counties, including Pinellas, do that involves going above and beyond minimum requirements.

Pinellas County has participated in the program since the 1990s and has gone beyond the requirements to the point that the ISO rating for unincorporated areas is a seven. He said other jurisdictions within the county also participate. Ratings throughout Pinellas range from a six to an eight.

Flood insurance policy holders in communities that rate a 10 receive no discount. A rating of a seven, earns property owners a 15 percent discount on their flood insurance. A community that rates a six receives a 20 percent discount.

Beardslee said staff was looking at what is being done currently and what else could be done to lower the county’s rating and subsequently reduce flood insurance premiums. FEMA awards points towards an ISO rating based on a number of criteria including such things as the amount of open space and land set aside for preservation along with a communities land development code.

FEMA also awards points based on the quality of water drainage and conveyance systems. The county’s recent undertaking to improve its stormwater system with a dedicated funding source via a surface water fee could prove very instrumental in ultimately lowering insurance rates.

Rahim Harji, senior engineer with the Department of Environment and Infrastructure, explained some of the work staff was doing, including assessing the minimum requirements needed to comply with FEMA’s flood insurance program regulations. Staff also is working on a list of things that could be done to improve the county’s rating and looking for the items that would be most cost beneficial.

He said they were exploring leading practices in flood plain management and looking at what is being done in other communities. Staff is checking the consistency of county codes in relationship with flood plain management and development.

Harji said staff also recognized it was important to “embrace technology and merge data correctly.”

“We’re looking at a strategy to mitigate flood insurance rates and reduce the number of properties in the flood plain by land use and zoning planning,” he said.

Arrington said part of the plan includes appointing a current employee as a flood plain management coordinator. He said having a dedicated employee would allow the county to “realize the best return on investment toward getting to a first class program.”

“We see the stakes are high and we’re giving the best response we can,” Arrington said.

Revision: corrected ISO rating discounts
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