Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki has been in office only a few short months. In that time she has had to deal with some very important issues in addition to former Mayor John Sullivan's lawsuit challenging her election victory.
Sawicki has made three trips to the northeast. First to Harvard for a series of seminars for newly elected mayors, then to Washington, D.C., for the national mayors conference. Her most recent trip dealt with the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act currently before Congress.
"It was wonderful for two reasons," said Sawicki. "We made more headway with members of Congress toward awareness and we gained support of members outside of our state."
Sawicki was part of a delegation of a dozen local mayors land dignitaries who made the trip in an effort to garner support in the House of Representatives to pass the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, known as H.R. 3370, in the coming days that would delay strikingly higher flood insurance rates for mainly coastal homeowners in flood zones that were passed in 2012 through the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. The U.S. Senate already passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act which is expected to come up for a vote in the House next week.
Fort Myers Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, assistant county manager Glen Salyer, Chris Heidrick, owner of Sanibel's Heidrick & Company Insurance and Risk Management Services, and a representative of the Florida League of Cities were among the delegation that split up to reach out to as many lawmakers and their representatives as possible.
"A lot of thanks has to go to Commissioner Kiker for organizing the trip and forming a good group of local representatives, because we don't have a national representative right now (House District 19 seat is currently vacant) and thus no one to go around supporting our position," said Mandel. "We spoke to aides of some Senators but mostly House members from outside of Florida. Hopefully, we made an impression on them. We have cautious optimism."
Mandel believes he attended roughly 20 meetings and said he spoke to officials from Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, South Carolina and Georgia. Sawicki accompanied Mayor Nelson to meetings with representatives from Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, Connecticut and an Alabama Senator.
"It was very productive," Sawicki said. "There was a lot of positive feedback. We made it clear we understand the issue, but a lot of people will be penalized unless we help them. Georgia, however, was the only one we talked to that was not happy. They are not sympathetic."
House majority leader Eric Cantor told them the House will "consider a modified version of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act" next week. The House plans on making changes to the bill. The bill, which contains language to delay the increases in premium rates for up to four years for coastal property owners affected by updated government flood maps, was still in committee during the delegation's visit. During the proposed delay, FEMA would be required to study the affordability of policies and re-evaluate the accuracy of the new flood maps.
"The Senate bill irresponsibly removes much needed reforms and imposes additional costs on taxpayers," Cantor stated. "The House will act to protect the flood insurance program but also protect homeowners from unreasonable and unrealistic premium increases."
While Mandel, Ruane and a few other delegates' return to Southwest Florida was delayed a day due to the weather that grounded air travel, Sawicki flew back Wednesday night because she had to be in court for the election recount trial.
"I was impressed with the representation from the other cities, but am disappointed that not all of the Florida lawmakers are on the same page," said Sawicki. "All of Florida needs to be united in this."
The higher flood rates are the result of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act and intended to make the flood insurance program more financially sound. The program was in a downward spiral caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It currently is $24 in debt.Mandel said some points that resonated to the officials was based on the amount of money Florida has contributed to the National Flood Insurance Program and its own viability.
"We stressed the point that Florida has certainly contributed $16 billion to the program and taken out less than $4 billion," Mandel said. "Most of the problem is really Katrina, which was possibly a lack of funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the levees were strong and not necessarily the storm per se.
"Another thing that we mentioned was the fact that people in Florida can have a $30,000 deductible on their wind insurance but, by law and banking regulations, are limited to only $2,000 deduction on flood insurance. Certainly, anyone looking at a $30,000 flood insurance premium right now probably would rather self-insure for $30,000 that maybe once in his or her lifetime has to come up with it rather than every single year."
Beach Observer editor Bob Petcher contributed to this report.