HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Staffing shortages in the City of Hattiesburg's planning department and a loss of federal subsidies have increased flood insurance cost for homeowners in the Hub City.
"My insurance premium went up 44 percent," said Hattiesburg resident James Trussell, who has lived in the same house for more than 20 years. "We've got a problem, and it impacts your back pocket."
Hattiesburg is part of FEMA's Community Rating System (CRS), which gives discounts on flood insurance premiums based on how well communities try to reduce flood risk. The program ranks community's from one to 10. Those with lower numbers receive the highest discount.
"We are a class 8, and that gives a 10 percent reduction in their insurance," said Ginger Maddox, Hattiesburg's planning division manager. "The CRS rating changed for Hattiesburg last year. It changed from a 6 to an 8, so we're currently working through getting that class better. We're currently working through increasing the rating of the class. We want to go from an 8 to a lower number, so there's a higher reduction in insurance."
Trussell said, "The CRS discount went from 20 percent to 10 percent. The reserve fund assessment went up. So whatever the reserve fund assessment is, it went up. It was $28 back in 2014-15. It went up to $96 dollars in 15-16, and it's going up to $110 in 16-17."
Maddox said the drop came after FEMA issued new standards for class rating the city was not prepared for.
"In 2013, there was a new CRS manual that was issued, so when we did our big audit of our CRS program, it was audited under, essentially, new rules that our old program wasn't designed for," Maddox said. "So that did hurt our program and our class rating, so now what we'll be able to do is restructure our floodplain management program, kind of gear it towards where those points are in order to improve our class rating."
Trussell said, "If FEMA didn't notify us, then we got a problem with FEMA, but if they did notify us, then I've got a problem with the city of Hattiesburg."
The city's planning department also had more staff to focus on floodplain management when homeowners were receiving a bigger discount.
"There used to be three land use positions," Maddox said. "One was dissolved, I would say, a couple of years ago. I don't know exactly when it was dissolved. When our class was at its highest, we had three land use planners on staff, and now we're down to two positions, two land use positions. Right now, we have one on staff. That's myself, and we're currently working to hire another planner."
Trussell said, "This is something that we should have already staffed. These are the people that should be there already, and all we do is turn to them and say, 'OK what do we need to do to correct this?' If we'd had the staffing people there, I feel sure that we could have maybe instead of extending this over almost a two-year period, we could've nipped it in the bud in the first year."
Maddox said any increase homeowners saw in 2016 comes from a loss of federal dollars, not the city's CRS rating, but agrees one person cannot do the job of three.
"Our office handles a lot of different things," Maddox said. "A lot of development. We work with developers, homeowners every day, and we work on a lot of different subjects. So to have more staff is going to help us work with homeowners, whether they're in a flood zone, a historic district, commercial zone, building a new home. It'll allow us a lot more time to work with them on projects, so it will absolutely help us."
Soon, the department will have more people working there. Maddox said in addition to hiring someone for a currently open position, the city council recently reinstated the third land use planner position.
"Having that new person will definitely help our department increase the reduction in insurance," Maddox said. "The city of Hattiesburg's going to have more staff time to devote to floodplain management, which we hope and the intent of it is to increase the reduction that people receive through our implementation of floodplain management and the community rating system program."
While the planning department is actively making strides to improve the situation, homeowners will likely wait at least a year before the city's rating and their insurance premiums go down. Maddox said the city can apply to have its rating reevaluated at anytime, but changes are only implemented in May and November.
"If we implement and recertify and increase our class rating, say we do that in May, those changes wouldn't happen until November, so twice a year a homeowner would see those changes after they redo their insurance policy," Maddox said. "Prior to that, we have to implement changes, then show evidence of those changes. Then the auditor has to actually review those changes and confirm those changes and then submit them to the insurance companies. I believe it's NFIP and FEMA who then change those ratings for us, so it's a multistep process. It's not just a deadline of May and November. That's just when they will take place. That's also why it's also a really long process. It's not just saying, 'Well we're going to change this,' and then we get points for it. We actually have to implement ordinances, change staff policies, change, possibly, permitting policies, have those implemented, show evidence of those, have all of that recorded."
As long as the city is actually working to decrease his insurance cost, Trussell said he could be happy.
"I don't believe that I should be up there in November, a year from now, saying 'Hey where are we? Oh we just haven't done anything,'" he said. "No. That's not acceptable."