Financial Pains Begin to Strike on First Coast; Insurance Industry and Utilities Drop Services and Increase Prices to Recoup Costs

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- Don't try to tell Richard Stark that hurricanes don't hit the First Coast.

The Vermont Heights homeowner was among thousands of St. Johns County residents stunned by the rain and wind from Hurricane Charley last year. The 76-year-old retiree escaped injury, but the storm started a squabble with the insurance company that has insured his home since 1985.

As the 2005 hurricane season began this month, the company said Stark's home was too risky to continue insuring. He is now shopping for insurance.

"They just tried to save money by not paying me," he said. "I understand they have losses, but I felt like they took advantage of me."

Meteorologists say a combination of wind patterns and geographic position steers hurricanes away from Florida's northeast corner. According to the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, the last major hurricane Category 3 or higher that hit the city directly was in 1898.

But as in Stark's situation, hurricanes are already hitting Northeast Florida residents financially. A year after a quartet of storms crisscrossed the state, the impacts are especially coming to residents' utility bills. Legislative changes in Tallahassee also have made those impacts more likely whether future hurricanes hit Northeast Florida or not.

While the utilities need permission from state regulators before they can raise rates, they have demonstrated an ease in doing so. In January, for example, the Public Service Commission in Tallahassee took the unprecedented step of allowing Florida Power & Light to impose $350 million of immediate surcharges before the company's requests were even formally scrutinized at a hearing.

Final approval of Florida Power's request could come at the commission's July 5 meeting. Florida Power has been charging its 141,000 customers in Baker, Clay, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties an extra $2.09 per month since February, promising to refund the money if the commission decides against final approval.

Florida Power spokesman Bill Swank said the company must replenish its internal storm recovery fund wiped out by last year's hurricanes.

"This past year overwhelmed the amount in our fund, and we need to rebuild," Swank said.

Consumer advocates say the companies, which also include Progress Energy and its requested $252 million increase, are simply cashing in. AARP Florida and the Florida Retail Federation, for example, both note that Florida Power posted an after-tax profit of 12.7 percent last year.

"The only way to describe the utilities' requests is 'greedy,' " Florida Retail Federation lobbyist Randy Miller stated in a recent news release.

Other industries are watching. Phone companies, for example, recently won legislative approval to follow the energy firms' strategy of recovering storm costs. Certain criteria must be met -- carriers with more than 3 million lines must incur more than $5 million in damages, and then can only add a 50-cent-per-month surcharge for up to one year. The surcharges became possible June 1.

BellSouth spokeswoman Marta Casas-Celaya, whose company has 5 million lines in Jacksonville, said the surcharges are appropriate because federal laws force phone companies to provide phone service in high-risk areas.

Perhaps the most costly changes are coming to insurance bills. Private insurers paid out $21 billion because of the 2004 hurricanes and are scrambling for ways to recover as much of it as possible. …