Relief in sight for homeowners’ insurance rates

Many Mountain Area residents were agonizing last year over skyrocketing home insurance premiums - increases as high as 400%, and in some cases, homeowners could not find an insurance company to even give them a quote.

The increases were all caused by a reassessment of Madera County by Insurance Services Office (ISO), a New Jersey-based company that evaluates fire departments. Many insurance companies throughout the nation use ISO ratings to establish home insurance rates.

In 2014, ISO determined that the following Madera County fire stations did not meet the minimum requirements for recognition - O’Neals (Station 17), Cedar Valley (Station 18), Bass Lake (Station 14), Ahwahnee (Station 16), and Indian Lakes (Station 8).

Madera County Fire Marshal Deborah Keenan said a major reason for the downgrade was due to a busy fire season that led to an unavoidable lack of personnel to provide ISO with the requested information by the cutoff date.

“At the time (July - September 2014), we were ramping up for fire season and our Cal Fire staff was on assignment out of the area, therefore most of those requests for additional information went unanswered,” explained Keenan. “And we had mostly out of the area fire engines covering at our fire stations, so they were unable to help. By the time everything settled, through the Junction and Courtney fires, it was too late to get them the information before the report was completed and sent off. Fire staff was not aware of what the final report was going to say. When we did receive our copy, we were actually shocked by the results.”

In an attempt to get some relief from escalating insurance rates, Madera County Fire officials contacted ISO last March with the request to reevaluate the fire service in the area.

“We had the original rater come out the end of May to meet with us,” Keenan said. “She requested additional information which was provided to her in July by Cal Fire’s Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit Fire Chief Nancy Koerperich, and Cal Fire’s Chris Christopherson. This information was helpful in getting the previously unrecognized stations in Eastern Madera County that were dropped last year, mainly due to a lack of personnel, re-recognized in a revised ISO report that came out in late October. The Madera County Fire Stations in Raymond and O’Neals remain unrecognized, however the other four are now once again viable stations to the insurance companies.”

Keenan feels there should be a substantial rate drop for those homeowners whose policies have renewed or changed since Feb. 1, due to a “unrecognized” fire station within five miles of their homes due to the latest assessment.

“ISO will update their subscription service rating in February, so these changes will not be visible to the insurance companies until then,” Keenan said. “I suggest homeowners contact their agents to determine if they have the ability to modify their policies prior to February. Some companies will try to get the underwriters to show the changes before ISO’s website shows it, but each insurance provider looks at the individual property and risk, so each policy and company is different.”

Keenan added that area Cal-Fire Amador (year-round) stations (Rancharia, Bass Lake, Ahwahnee, Raymond) will now be recognized - which is a first and a huge benefit to Madera County. Homeowners that did not previously have a county fire station within five miles, but do have a Cal Fire Amador program station within that distance, should also see an improvement.

“The overall rating remains the same ... the re-recognition of those fire stations is what’s new,” Keenan said. “ISO and their staff were very helpful. It was a huge benefit that much of this re-review also occurred prior to fire season really blowing up. Fire staff was able to focus a lot of time and resources on the task, prior to running after fires across the region.”

Oakhurst insurance broker Donna Smith of Foster & Parker Insurance, who started advising people about this issue five years ago, said that unlike a year ago, there may now be relief on the horizon for Mountain Area residents.

“Thanks to Madera County and Cal Fire’s immense efforts, many homeowners will receive insurance premium relief due to the recognition of several stations,” Smith said.

According to Keenan, who lives in the Mountain Area, when customers see an increase in rates they should remember that not every company uses the ISO to determine its coverage.

“They need to shop around, not every insurance company uses ISO ratings,” Keenan said.

Sales tax increase will help

Although details have yet to be worked out, a measure is expected to be on the June 2016 ballot after the Madera County Board of Supervisors approves a resolution to move forward with a sales tax increase specifically earmarked for fire and sheriff protection.

In April, Keenan and Koerperich and several other fire officials presented information to the supervisors and discussed a tax plan that would give Eastern Madera County the resources necessary to provide adequate services required by the ISO.

County officials hope to gain general public support for a country-wide tax measure prior to the June 2016 election.

“I hope everyone supports the upcoming county vote to approve the half cent sales tax increase for our area to provide funds for increased fire and sheriff protection,” Smith said.

For more information on how this might effect your area or to determine your ISO rating contact your insurance provider representative or contact Keenan at the Madera County Fire Marshal’s Office, (559) 661-5190.