Citizens adds employees as number of policies drops

As other insurers pick up Citizens policies, Florida's insurer of last resort adds workers and pays them more. (New York Times file photo)

Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer of last resort, has trimmed more than 26 percent of its customers since late 2007.

But the number of employees has grown by 17 percent.

"There isn't a company in the state who could sustain those kind of cost increases at the same time as it's losing [more than] 20 percent of its business," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. He's so concerned, he said he plans to speed up legislation to put Citizens out of business if it doesn't meet set financial goals.

A Sun Sentinel review of Citizens budgets, travel records and salaries found:

Costs for salaries, benefits and payroll taxes rose 50 percent, from $57 million in 2007 to about $86 million last year, an estimate based on actual expenses through October. This year, the company plans to spend $95 million in compensation, according to the budget approved by its board last month.

49 Citizens employees were paid more than $100,000 before taxes in 2009, five more than the previous year. Citizens President Scott Wallace was paid $343,608 last year, about 5 percent more than the previous year.

Citizens employees dined at some of South Florida's finest restaurants while in town for customer forums in late 2008.

Administrative expenses rose 24 percent over the two years to an estimated $122 million in 2009, up from $119 million and $98 million in the two previous years. This includes salaries, rent, maintenance and subscriptions. This year, the company plans to spend $148 million.

Payroll grew to 1,169 employees in 2009 from 1,000 in 2007.

Meanwhile, the number of policies with Citizens fell from a peak of 1.4 million in October 2007 to just over 1 million now.

Citizens was formed in 2002 as a last resort for homeowners who couldn't find coverage when insurers scaled back. After the busy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, the insurer provided an alternative for policyholders whose private insurance premiums doubled or tripled, in some cases.

All Florida residents with insurance are affected by Citizens' spending: Homeowners are paying an annual fee of 1.4 percent of premiums until 2017 to cover the company's shortfalls after the 2005 hurricanes. If a hurricane strikes and causes major damage, all automobile and property insurance policyholders could pay fees to offset Citizens' shortfalls.

Questions about the insurer are resurfacing as it starts boosting its premium prices by as much as 10 percent a year for the first time since 2007, when premiums were frozen by the legislature.

Christine Turner Ashburn, a spokeswoman for Citizens, said the company's costs have grown because it must pay competitive wages, especially because it can't attract employees with the bonuses and perks offered by private insurers.

The average salary for a full-year employee at Citizens was about $54,000 in 2009, less than the roughly $56,000 average nationwide for all occupations at insurance carriers – excluding those offering life, health and medical coverage – in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Citizens' staff grew to cope with the more than 500,000 policies that came in between 2005 and 2007 as private insurers folded or reduced their numbers of policies in Florida, Turner Ashburn said. The company also improved its systems for managing policies and claims.

"Citizens grew very rapidly in terms of policy count, but it takes time to build up to the appropriate staff levels, so naturally employee count has continued to increase as the policy count has leveled off," Turner Ashburn said. The number of employees has also started to level off.

More employees means the company will be able to provide better service now — and if a hurricane strikes — she said.

Brad Ashwell, a consumer advocate with the Florida Public Interest Research Group, called for more government oversight of Citizens.

"It's hard to tell what's going on from outside the organization," he said. "With Citizens and all public-private partnerships, we need to be diligent in watching where the public dollars are going."

Ashwell and other consumer advocates questioned Citizens' staff members' choice of restaurants during statewide public forums in the past two years.

The reimbursements to employees for meals during the trip fell under the $80-per-day rate allowed by state law for overnight out-of-town trips. But the list of restaurants raised some eyebrows.

The restaurants include Sushi Samba Dromo in Miami Beach, where 14 people spent $558; Blue Moon Fish Co. in Fort Lauderdale, where six people spent $249; and Trattoria Luna in Miami, where eight people had a dinner bill of $283.

"It's one thing to go out to eat. It's another thing to eat lavishly," Ashwell said.

Citizens held three customer forums in South Florida in September 2008 as part of a statewide effort to talk with consumers. The company held one forum last year in Melbourne and will continue them in 2010, Turner Ashburn said.

Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 or jpatel@sunsentinel.com.