TALLAHASSEE — A Senate panel Wednesday cleared a bill to create a sinkhole repair program for Citizens Property Insurance customers despite lingering concerns it wasn’t needed or wouldn’t be effective.
The General Government Appropriations subcommittee approved the bill (SB 416) by a vote of 10-3. Three Democrats voted against the legislation: Tampa’s Arthenia Joyner, Orlando’s Geraldine Thompson and Kissimmee’s Darren Soto.
Some Republicans, including Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Nancy Detert of Venice, also continued to express reservations. Early in the meeting, Detert questioned whether “we’re writing a bill we don’t need to write.”
The measure, which was amended at least six times in the span of Wednesday’s meeting, aims at a simple purpose: To ensure that sinkhole damage is fixed properly and within a reasonable time.
Policyholders with a sinkhole claim could select from a prescreened pool of qualified contractors, who would guarantee their repairs with a 5-year warranty, backed by Citizens.
The committee approved the bill on the same day Citizens announced a multimillion-dollar settlement with more than 300 policyholders over sinkhole repair disputes lodged against the insurer.
The Tampa Bay area is known as “sinkhole alley,” and Citizens, a nonprofit government corporation, is the insurer of last resort for homes in sinkhole-prone areas.
Under the settlement, Citizens “will pay for underground repairs as recommended by a professional engineer, who will monitor repair work and order any additional underground repairs deemed necessary,” the company said in a statement.
“Policyholders will be allowed to choose a contractor from a pre-approved list. Citizens also will pay for any additional above ground damage caused by the sinkhole repair.”
Bill sponsor Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has said he wants to prevent the growth of lawsuits against Citizens over incomplete or botched repairs and to head off disagreements on how much damage needs to be fixed, and therefore paid for.
He also wants to prevent homeowners from pocketing money from claim checks without fixing their homes.
Rose Rocco, a former Hernando County commissioner, told lawmakers they needed to allow more time for a state law passed in 2011 to work, one that raises the bar to receive sinkhole claims.
She also objected to the creation of another bureaucracy, referring to the management of a sinkhole repair program.
“Put this to bed today and let it die,” Rocco said.
But Suzanne Winfield of Riverview, whose home was damaged by a sinkhole, told her story of waiting three years to get her sinkhole claim resolved, only to be left — after attorney and consultant fees — with not enough money to do the repairs.
The bill might not help her, “but it will help my neighbors,” said Winfield, who now works for a sinkhole stabilization contractor.
The measure will next be considered by the full Appropriations committee in the Senate. A House companion (HB 129) has not yet had a hearing.