By JOY BROWN
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has threatened to place Findlay on flood insurance program “probation,” which could increase the cost of flood insurance premiums, if the city doesn’t resolve more than 100 property issues the agency has identified.
Ironically, city officials say the threat is a result of the city’s attempts to join a rate-reduction program for flood insurance.
In an April 15 letter to Mayor Lydia Mihalik, Kelly DeGuia of FEMA’s Chicago office said Findlay must provide data showing the city has sufficiently resolved “the 112 outstanding issues and potential violations,” or submit a “corrective action plan.”
The number of issues has been pared down from an earlier total of 153.
“Probation has no effect on the continued availability of flood insurance,” DeGuia wrote. However, it could mean “an additional charge of $50 will be added to the premium for each policy for a period of at least one year.”
Findlay flood plain administrator Todd Richard and Mihalik said the city intends to submit the information FEMA has requested by Wednesday’s deadline.
They say the data request is a result of the city’s desire to enroll in the federal Community Rating System, a rate-reduction program for communities that meet minimum National Flood Insurance Program guidelines.
Communities enrolled, such as Ottawa, can earn points that provide flood insurance discounts for residents ranging from 5 to 45 percent.
Findlay has been trying to enroll for more than five years, but has been hampered by repeated FEMA requests to provide more information about various properties that have been affected by flooding. The requests show FEMA doubts Findlay is complying with flood insurance program standards.
The agency has contended that the city hasn’t always adhered to its own rules for repairing flood-damaged structures, and has erroneously declared some properties to be substantially damaged by flooding.
The agency is also skeptical about several Hunters Creek subdivision homes and accompanying infrastructure, claiming the city may have improperly removed the land from a special flood hazard area.
Enrollment in the rate-reduction program isn’t easy. Only 15 Ohio communities have been accepted into it. And once in, that status is challenging to maintain. Of 1,211 nationwide participants, only four have reached the 45 percent discount level.
Some think Findlay has had a more difficult time enrolling than most.
“I don’t know of any precedent in the state where this protracted of a review has been faced,” Christopher Thoms, the state Department of Natural Resources insurance program coordinator, said in a March story.
Thoms also defended the city’s record.
“I have seen on the part of the city reasonable and conscientious consideration of the law,” he said.
Mayor Mihalik said she doesn’t think the city’s flood insurance program status is at risk, and that FEMA’s threat of “probation” is a reaction to Findlay’s persistent effort to join the Community Rating System.
“I am confident that we are managing our flood plain regulations and are consistent with (flood insurance program) guidelines. It’s a matter of making sure that our terminology lines up with FEMA’s,” Mihalik said.
“This isn’t something that we have ignored. It’s something that we have been persistent with and would like to have resolution to. It’s just getting FEMA and (the agency’s) Region V to respond has been difficult,” she said.
“That’s why I found it somewhat comical that they placed a deadline on us for response when we’ve never had an issue with responding to their requests. In fact, it’s always been the other way around.”
This spring, city officials complained about the agency’s lagging response times, which they partly attributed to FEMA staff turnover in Chicago. Records show that occasionally, the city would go for months without hearing from Region V about the city’s status.
In March, Richard said that given the city’s frequent floods, it hasn’t been perfect when it comes to things such as issuing permits for flood-related repairs. But he also thought that some of FEMA’s expectations are impossible to meet. For instance, it has frowned upon the city’s acceptance of handwritten receipts for repairs.
As for Hunters Creek, city officials say the houses in question in the subdivision were built according to federal guidelines in place at the time.
Records obtained by The Courier show fill dirt was used to elevate most of the subdivision land a few inches above the flood zone level, which was permitted at the time. The land was then removed from a 100-year flood map.
Houses were built, and some of the houses have basements. Under current standards, the basements would be considered below flood level.
FEMA wants more information about the lots that were removed from the 100-year flood map.
The agency also wants more information on the subdivision’s sanitary sewer system.
Hunters Creek flooded so badly in 2007 and 2008 that the city built a $500,000 drainage system to remove floodwater after it infiltrates the neighborhood. Findlay paid $205,000 for the system and subdivision residents agreed to be assessed for the remainder.
City officials say they will continue to pursue Community Rating System enrollment, and will provide FEMA with whatever it needs to help with that, especially since some flood insurance rates are expected to increase over time.
From 1984, the year that Findlay joined the flood insurance program, through 2012, Findlay led the state in flood insurance payouts. Nearly $35 million has been paid.
Findlay has the second-highest amount of flood insurance premiums in force in Ohio, with just over $1 million. Toledo is highest with about $43,000 more, according to flood insurance program data.