Henriquez seeks sinkhole protections
Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez understands that the county's lax sinkhole oversight allows fraud and deception. County commissioners should follow his recommendation and adopt an ordinance requiring that sinkhole inspections and repairs be recorded. This would protect homebuyers from unknowingly buying sinkhole-damaged homes and would protect homeowners from being conned by unqualified or unscrupulous sinkhole repair operations. Similar measures have proved successful in Pasco and Hernando counties. Those two counties are the state's focal point for sinkhole activity, but Hillsborough also is part of what is considered "Sinkhole Alley." A man was killed earlier this year when a sinkhole opened beneath his bedroom in east Hillsborough.Henriquez's proposal would require sinkhole investigators to obtain a permit that ensures a licensed geologist or engineer inspects a home for sinkhole damage. This guards against disreputable operators misleading homeowners into paying for repairs that are not necessary. Warren Weathers, of the property appraiser's office, says sometimes what people think is a sinkhole is actually rotting vegetative debris that was covered over, rather than removed from the tract. If a sinkhole is found, a final report must be made when remediation is completed. The goal is to put all this on the appraiser's website. As Henriquez told the Tribune's Mike Salinero: "The idea is to create a start-to-finish tracking method." With such a system, people looking for a new home will know where sinkholes have been found and where they have been fixed. The process also will enable the property appraiser to accurately value homes, lowering property values when a sinkhole is detected, and increasing them once it has been addressed. As Weathers points outs, homes where sinkholes have been properly fixed with grout and rebar are usually the safest homes in the neighborhood. While the need for a sinkhole-tracking system should not be questioned, residents may need to brace themselves for other effects that are as much beyond their control as the shifting earth. Once permits are filed and become public record, residents likely will be actively solicited by lawyers and repair firms wanting in on the action. This is common in Pasco and Hernando. Residents must do their homework and not be victimized by individuals seeking to capitalize on their misfortune. It also would be a good idea for all property owners to check their homeowners insurance to make sure they are adequately covered. Sinkhole repairs are costly in terms of stabilizing the ground and fixing damage to the home. The sinkhole proposal is one of a series of thoughtful moves Henriquez has made since taking office in January, replacing 16-year incumbent Rob Turner, whose political career was undone by revelations he exchanged racy messages with his human resources director. Henriquez has initiated a strategic plan, is overhauling the agency's website, consolidated workers from two floors to one to cut costs and required all employees to complete sexual harassment and ethics training. The former state lawmaker also has taken a number of steps to ensure faster and more reliable entry of data, such as using computer tablets in the field. He's re-energized an office that had been demoralized by Turner's controversies. The sinkhole proposal is another solid step. Commissioners rightly directed the county attorney to develop such an ordinance for consideration. Now they should adopt it.