Editor's note: Carlos Lacasa, chairman of the Board of Governors for the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., writes in response to "No austerity at the top for Citizens,'' Feb. 18.
Would it surprise you to learn that Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has consistently received favorable audit opinions from independent external auditors and was recently found by the Office of Insurance Regulation to provide customer service that is among the best in the state?
Did you know that Citizens has the fourth-lowest rate of claims-related complaints among Florida insurers, according to the auditor general?
Have you heard that the company has received an A+ from the highly respected Weiss Ratings for its financial strength, making it one of only four Florida homeowners insurers to earn a "recommended" rating?
You probably haven't heard these facts, which are a testament to Citizens' financial strength and sound internal governance because, as a company that does not seek to attract customers, Citizens does not go out of its way to advertise its successes. Instead, we prove our worth by providing quality customer service and by making sure we are ready and prepared to pay claims when the next major hurricane hits Florida.
So, why am I pointing out these achievements now?
I recently read with dismay and regret another article that seeks to tear down the efforts of hardworking staff at an organization that provides an important service to more than 1.2 million property owners with nowhere else to turn for their insurance needs. And while I would be the first to say there are many things Citizens can do and is doing to tighten its belt, I cannot help but be disappointed by the lack of context provided in what should be an objective article about employee compensation.
While it is true that a few top employees received raises in late 2012, it was not reported that the raises were largely due to those employees taking on significant increases in their responsibilities following the elimination of a key leadership position. The raises also followed three straight years of no merit raises and were accompanied by a decrease to benefits in the form of increased health insurance premiums and higher co-pays.
The article also failed to mention that, even with these raises, a recent independent pay parity study found that the salaries of Citizens' leadership rank in the bottom 25 percent of comparable private companies. This is why Citizens has lost three of its top people in the past three months alone. Their institutional expertise and knowledge will be hard to replace, while the cost of recruiting, hiring and training their replacements will far outweigh the cost of having provided modest raises on a regular basis.
The hard fact is that although Citizens may function as a public entity, it has to compete with private insurance carriers for a limited pool of qualified and proven professionals. The few professionals who have the high degree of technical expertise and training necessary to deliver proven results are highly sought after and competitively recruited with salaries, benefits packages and performance bonuses that Citizens could never come close to meeting.
While a certain level of salary discrepancy is appropriate given Citizens' public mission, we must draw the line at the point where we are no longer able to attract and retain the competent professionals necessary to successfully run Florida's largest single homeowners insurer and manage its nearly $418 billion in exposure. Remember, it will be Florida's taxpayers who will ultimately pay the price via assessments if Citizens doesn't have the expertise necessary to prepare for and properly administer claims following the next major hurricane.
Citizens customers pay insurance premiums just like everyone else in Florida. In return, they deserve and demand the same quality of service. To provide that, Citizens must attract and retain leaders and employees who are at the top of their fields, are willing to work for far less than their counterparts in the private sector and can function under the public microscope.
The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons taught all Floridians that it costs far more to be underskilled and understaffed than it does to pay a fair salary to professionals at the top of their fields. Citizens responded to that lesson by hiring superb leaders to dramatically improve our operations.
Although I hope we never get hit by a hurricane, I know that when we do, Citizens will be ready to carry out its mission because we have invested in top-quality leaders and employees with the expertise and training necessary to get the job done.
Carlos A. Lacasa is chairman of the Board of Governors for Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run property insurer.