ST. PETERSBURG —With flood insurance premiums set to skyrocket in October, and little movement in Congress to forestall the increases, Mayor Bill Foster is assembling a task force to find ways to lessen the impact on residents.
Owners of more than 33,000 homes in Pinellas County could see their premiums increase up to 25 percent annually, under a law Congress passed last year to shore up the country's debt-plagued flood insurance program. Nearly half of those homes — about 15,000 — are in St. Petersburg, and represent nearly a quarter of the city's housing stock.
Many don't even enjoy a waterfront view. An analysis by Pinellas' property appraiser found that many affected properties are far inland in middle-class and low-income neighborhoods, where flooding is still a threat.
"St. Petersburg is ground zero," Foster said. "It would have a disastrous impact."
On Thursday, the mayor called Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala and Property Appraiser Pam Dubov, as well as Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who represents St. Petersburg, asking them to join his task force. LaSala and Brandes have agreed to join, he said, while Dubov will be a data consultant.
Foster and the County Commission have sent letters to U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, urging them to delay implementation of the Biggert-Waters Act. The commission has also submitted a statement to U.S. Rep. Bill Young, testifying to the devastating effects the law could have on the region's real estate market.
It's unclear how much a local task force can do, as Congress holds the power to delay the law's implementation.
"Congress has to do something for this to change," Dubov said. "That is really the only thing that's going to solve this."
Still, Foster said he hoped to "be at the table with Congress to present solutions."
"Up to this point, this city, as well as other cities in the county, have been working on our delegation just to get them to hit the pause button," he said.
Asked if he thought local lawmakers had done enough to address the flood insurance crisis, the mayor said they had not. Rather, he said, with the exception of U.S. Rep Young, Congress appears fixated on Obamacare and talk of a government shutdown.
Sounding a more optimistic note, LaSala said he expects Congress will postpone the law's implementation.
Foster said his task force would likely convene for the first time later this month, or early next. His opponent in this November's mayoral election, Rick Kriseman, has criticized him for not acting sooner to pressure lawmakers to postpone the law's effects.
Anecdotal reports from real estate agents suggest that the local market is beginning to suffer. A handful of potential sales have fallen through, as buyers balked at paying thousands of dollars more for insurance.
City Council member Karl Nurse said one idea is for banks or insurance companies to offer homeowners loans to cover the cost of raising their homes above flood levels, eliminating the need for flood insurance. But instead of making traditional loan payments, those residents would pay the money back through their property taxes, the way some homeowners currently pay a reclaimed water fee.
The approach is modeled on Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs that help businesses pay for solar panels or other clean energy upgrades.
"It could be that we don't have to do this," Nurse said. "But I suspect the train wreck is coming and the best we can get is a year's delay."
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