A costly state program aimed at shoring up mobile homes to better withstand hurricanes has all the trappings of a boondoggle: insider dealing, little accountability and disproportionately high funding. Florida's Legislature, including a key Tampa Bay lawmaker, have been all too willing to look the other way. But now that Windstorm Mitigation Inc. has received another extraordinarily lucrative multiyear contract financed through the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, Gov. Rick Scott and fellow Cat Fund trustees should reconsider whether the program is the best use of public money.
As the St. Petersburg Times' Kris Hundley reported last Sunday, only one vendor with an inside track has ever been hired for the state's mobile home mitigation program, which receives $2.8 million of the $10 million the Cat Fund spends annually in order to qualify for tax-exempt status. Ken Cashin, a longtime manufactured home industry lobbyist, was part of the 1999 state committee assigned to design the mobile home program. He wrote a technical report outlining how the retrofitting program should operate, and several of those recommendations became part of the bid. Two months later, he resigned from the committee to form Windstorm Mitigation and won the bid to install anchors — at no cost to the homeowner — on homes manufactured after tougher federal building standards took effect in 1976. (Homes built to earlier standards aren't believed to have the structural integrity to benefit from the anchors.)
But 11 years later, Hundley found a program that appears to be rife with waste even as it has spent $33 million from the state Cat Fund. Inspectors told Hundley they routinely find mobile homes that had been part of the program but have far too few anchors installed to be of any use or should never have qualified because of their age. And professional inspectors conducting a random survey of eight mobile homes that took part in the program in Pinellas and Polk counties found only one with enough anchors to actually qualify as meeting the current safety codes. At a Clearwater park, none of four mobile homes that were in the program had sufficient anchors. These are not the characteristics of an efficient, cost-effective program.
Then there is the lack of agreement as to whether mobile home mitigation even works. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, surveying damage in mobile home parks from Florida's 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, suggested the anchors may not be worth the investment as they seemed to have little influence on whether a home survived.
And even supporters of the program — including the administrator of Tallahassee Community College — appear willing to concede the original program was too generous. When Cashin won another five-year contract earlier this year, a losing bidder's protest led the college to substantially change the contract's reimbursement scheme. Rather than getting $1,330 per mobile home, regardless of the amount of work done, Cashin's company is now paid per anchor.
In a state so prone to hurricanes, it defies logic to spend more than a quarter of the state's mitigation funds on mobile homes, which account for 2 percent of the state's insurance risk. The Cat Fund sells low-cost reinsurance to property insurers, but those costs are passed straight through to Florida property owners. State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the original legislation in 1999 as well as the renewal, shrugged off scrutiny with, "It's just a couple of million dollars a year." With that kind of indifference, it's no wonder politically connected insiders get rich off the public purse.
Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, the Cat Fund's trustees, should not sit idly by. Lawmakers may have created this boondoggle, but state leaders can use their bully pulpit to demand change.