Before you make the ALF decision for your parents…

Recently I came across this article by Linda Hurtado of ABC Action News (WFTS-TV, Tampa’s ABC affiliate) on how to choose the right Assisted Living Facility (ALF) for your parents when the time comes.  It is a well written article on what to look for in an ALF and – most importantly – your financial options when the time has come to choose an ALF over independent living.

DISCLAIMER:  Before I go on further, none of what you are about to read is considered, nor it should be construed as, legal advice.  If you have any questions regarding this or any other legal issue, please by all means see an attorney who is licensed by the Florida Bar.
While I think most ALF’s are reputable and show a level of unparalleled dignity and respect for the residents that live there, unfortunately there are ALF’s out there that will take advantage of your parents from a financial standpoint.  In fact, I have read horror stories of ALF’s that resort to the use of Florida’s guardianship laws in order to get their hands on every dollar of a parents’ assets.

Once an ALF finds someone with a substantial amount of assets, an ALF has struck a vast pool of Texas Tea.  Or an underwater Gulf of Mexico goldmine.  Let the financial feast begin!
Before I go on further, may I suggest reading my topic on guardianship in Florida – the legalized kidnapping and exploitation of the elderly and disabled as well as our veterans that proudly served America – over on my web site?  This will give you a basic idea of what a guardianship is in Florida and the potential for abuse, especially at the hands of professional guardians and others involved in assessing a person’s capacity to make informed decisions such as social workers and psychiatrists.
The first thing you should do if the time comes to consider placing your parents in an ALF is to consult an attorney.  Your attorney can assist you in many ways as to the preservation of your parents’ assets.
After all, once an ALF knows of your parents’ assets – especially significant assets – the ALF has essentially hit a goldmine as far as a good source of income is concerned.  An ALF can welcome your parents with open arms, but once your parents are settled into the congregate living world of an ALF, the ALF administrators can declare open season on your parents’ assets, as well as your parents’ daily activities among other things.
An ALF is run by an administrator who oversees the day to day operations of the ALF.  Working under the ALF administrator is a team of professionals – either on the staff or on call as needed – such as social workers and psychiatrists, just to name a few.  All it takes is knowledge of a serious medical condition, such as diabetes (and I don’t care which type of diabetes it is) or Alzheimer’s, to set off a cascade of legal events that turn your parents from legal adults into wards of the State of Florida.
The administrator, working in concert with the social worker, psychiatrist and the ALF’s legal counsel, will file a petition for guardianship with the goal of going after the parents’ assets.  In Florida, two petitions start the guardianship process:  The Petition to Determine Capacity and the Petition for Appointment of a Guardian.
Once the petitions are filed and the parents are notified that petitions have been filed to inquire into their mental capacity to make everyday decisions, a hearing is held before a probate judge to appoint the three person examining committee.  It is the job of the examining committee to inquire into a person’s ability to make everyday decisions, and the inquiry does not stop with the interview of the person that is the subject of the guardianship petition.
The examining committee goes further by getting testimony from the ALF administrator and the ALF’s social worker among the persons.  Next, the examining committee will get their hands on any and all medical records of the alleged incapacitated person by way of the subpoena process.

Speaking of medical records, despite federal privacy laws such as HIPAA in place, the examining committee can look at not only the medical records from the alleged incapacitated person’s physician, but records maintained by other entities such as the Medical Information Bureau as well as Milliman for prescription drug histories and FICO (you got that right, FICO, the same company that gives you your credit score) for the FICO Medication Adherence Score, a scorecard as to how well a patient complies with doctors’ orders by taking the medications as prescribed.  All it takes is a legal subpoena, of which the maintainers of the alleged incapacitated person’s medical records must comply with once served.
Once everything is all said and done, the reports of each member of the examining committee are summarized into a report that is given to the probate judge.  The judge reviews everything and in a subsequent hearing, if everything is in order the judge will adjudicate the person incompetent and appoint a guardian.
Once the adjudication is all said and done, bingo!  The ALF just got their hands on your parents’ assets in order to pay for the cost of being in the ALF!  And legally, thanks to Florida’s guardianship laws!
And as for your parents, your parents are in the custody of a total and complete stranger who dictates the way of life for your parents.  God knows who was involved in the selection of the professional guardian:  More than likely the ALF.  Moreover, the guardian either severely restricts your visits to your parents or, worse, cuts off all your visitation privileges completely.
Remember, a person who is a ward of the state (in other words, under guardianship) has much less rights than a convicted felon.  Among the rights lost (assuming a plenary guardianship):
The right to vote
The right to determine where you live
The ability to seek or keep a job
The ability to have a Florida Driver License
The ability to manage property
The ability to sue or be sued in court
The right to determine who you can be associated with
The ability to travel – even outside the ALF
The ability to retain an United States Passport
The right to make decisions regarding medical treatment

The professional guardian goes to work immediately on whatever assets can be converted into cash in order to pay the recurring monthly ALF fees such as room and board among other things.  A house which has been the home of your parents – and which you more than likely grew up in – is sold and the proceeds go to the professional guardian which eventually ends up in the hands of the ALF – usually after the professional guardian helps himself/herself to a share of the proceeds as professional guardian fees.

The same thing goes for all other assets the parents had:  Money in banks, money received as a result of receiving government benefits, family heirlooms – and the list goes on and on.

Once all the assets are spent, then it’s time to apply for Medicaid.  Once Medicaid is approved, the financial lifeline in the ALF’s favor thanks to your parents is still intact.

You are kept out of all decision making as far as your parents are concerned.  The only time the ALF or the professional guardian overseeing the affairs of your parents will contact you is if your parents passed away.  In other words, you are kept in the dark regarding your parents.

Once your parents pass away in the ALF, it’s game over for all the players that have overseen your parents’ care.  Then the ALF finds its next “victim” and the wheel of guardianship spins all over again.

So what can you do for your parents when it comes time to think about making the transition from home to ALF?

First and foremost, arrange a meeting with an attorney, preferably an attorney that knows both wills, trusts and probate as well as elder law.  Most attorneys can give you a 30-minute consultation either for free or for a small fee.  This cannot be over-emphasized enough:  Check the attorney’s qualifications and expertise as well as his or her courtroom track record before you hand any sum of money to an attorney when you sign that retainer agreement.

Be sure that the attorney you select is licensed by the Florida Bar.  Much better, an attorney licensed by the Florida Bar and certified in probate and elder law matters is much more favorable.

A competent attorney will show you the ways that your parents’ assets can be structured to prevent their being taken by professional guardians.  Steer clear of attorneys who think that guardianship is the only way to preserve assets – just remember what happened to a Clearwater resident whose name is Carol Kinnear as far as the unintended consequences of a guardianship are concerned.

Next, research ALF facilities in your area by starting online and visiting the individual ALF websites.  Narrow down your list based on their reputation (how do I find out?  Do a Google search for (name of ALF facility) complaints) and contact them to arrange for a tour of the facility.

When you take a tour of the ALF facilities, you may want to take your parents along.  While you are there, you will get a first impression of what the facility is like.  All I can say here is trust your instinct – if while you are touring an ALF facility you have any concerns about placing your parents there, the best thing to do is to err on the side of caution and leave the facility.

The only time that your parents give out their personal information is when the decision is made to enter a specific ALF and the paperwork is completed.  In fact, have your attorney review all ALF paperwork before signing anything.

In fact, work with your attorney to discuss safeguarding your parents’ assets before your parents sign the ALF paperwork.

Now what if, despite your best efforts, your parents resist your efforts to place them in an ALF?  According to Linda Hurtado of ABC Action News your parents do not have to go to an ALF, unless adjudicated incompetent in a guardianship proceeding.

In other words, your parents are legal adults with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto, the same way when you turned 18 and became an adult yourself.  The only way the rights and privileges as an adult can be taken away from you – other than being convicted and sent to prison – is the guardianship process as defined in Chapter 744 of the Florida Statutes.  Then again, a person under guardianship has much less rights than a convicted felon.

So please, before you make the ALF decision for your parents, speak to an attorney first.  After all, your parents took great care of you, and someday the time will come when it’s time for you to take care of them.

Justice for Trayvon Martin Update

By now you have more than likely following the trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch vigilante who murdered Trayvon Martin back in the early part of 2012.  Back in March 2012 I wrote a blog entry on justice for Trayvon Martin while I was on board a northbound Amtrak train (Train 92, the Silver Star) headed to Jacksonville to spend a rental car-less weekend to get a few things done.
Unfortunately, the jury verdict was what not expected:  Not guilty.  That’s the State of Florida sending a signal that it is OK to commit acts of extreme vigilantism thanks to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
While what George Zimmerman did was a senseless and unjustified act, we need to understand that whatever the verdict of the jury is reached, good or bad, remember that the American criminal justice system has been around since 1776 from the day our forefathers founded our great nation, the United States of America.  In fact, we recently celebrated our nation’s 237th birthday not too long ago on 4 July 2013.
I am not pleased at the jury verdict, and I know many of you agree with that.  However, we need to respect the jury’s verdict and decision on the outcome of this case.  On another note, we Floridians need to keep pushing our legislators in Tallahassee at the next session of the Florida Legislature to reform or repeal Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

Moreover, here is also an email I received from along with a link to sign a petition asking United States Attorney General Eric Holder to open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman that I would like to share with you:

A jury has acquitted George Zimmerman, but we are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Sign our petition to the Department of Justice today.  That’s why I signed a petition to Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder.

Will you sign this petition? Click here:


The Privacy Dangers of Biometric Screenings

As we celebrate America’s 237th year of independence I got to see the annual 4th of July fireworks display over at Channelside, a shopping and dining mecca located next to the cruise port terminal in downtown Tampa just east of the St. Pete Times (Tampa Bay Times) Forum.  I decided to take in the fireworks display at Channelside after several years viewing the 4th of July fireworks in downtown St. Petersburg for a change.
After all, change is good when you want to see the fireworks at a different place.  Besides, downtown St. Petersburg is not the same without its iconic signature trademark, the St. Petersburg Pier, which recently closed this past Memorial Day weekend in May 2013.  However, the future of the St. Petersburg Pier is up to the voters of the City of St. Petersburg which will be on the 27 August 2013 ballot as a referendum question.
If you cherish and value your rights of privacy in the health care setting as an American, you need to read this blog entry word for word.  In an earlier blog entry I spoke my opinion on employer sponsored wellness programs.  A increasingly disturbing trend of these wellness programs is the biometric screening, where you are screened for several factors such as your blood pressure and blood glucose level among them.  In fact, what makes these biometric screenings more disturbing is that if you fail to participate, you will pay more for your health insurance or be penalized somewhere; I have read based on my research online that employers can go to extremes such as terminating your employment – all because of pre-existing health conditions you may have had.
Now how can these biometric screenings be used against you?  You will be surprised.
1.  Your employer’s health insurance carrier.  The results of the biometric screening are not only kept by your health insurance carrier, the results are also reported to the Medical Information Bureau, which can pose serious problems for you if you decide to apply for life insurance at a later time.
2.  The Medical Information Bureau is a specialty consumer reporting agency in that records are kept on millions of Americans as to their health conditions.  If you decide to apply for life insurance as I mentioned earlier, or if you submit a claim for benefits such as health insurance benefits, your record at the Medical Information Bureau comes into play here.
3.  Your employer can use the information from the biometric screening against you as well.  Despite the privacy protections in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, commonly known as HIPAA, the information from the biometric screening somehow makes it to your employer.  After all, it is your employer paying a huge chunk of your health insurance bill (and you paying your share out of your paycheck).
4.  Now this is very important, and I mentioned this in my earlier blog entry on employer sponsored wellness programs:
Suppose you went and got that biometric screening in order to cut your health insurance bill deducted from your paycheck.  The results of that biometric screening show that you have a serious medical condition and a nurse practitioner has counseled you.
If in the event – later down the road – a petition for guardianship is ever filed against you, a three person committee called the examining committee is ordered by the judge for the purpose of examining the person whose capacity is in question.  This three person committee consists of a physician, a psychiatrist and a lay person such as a social worker.

In Florida, two petitions start the guardianship process as defined in Chapter 744 of the Florida Statutes:  Petition to Determine Capacity and Petition for Appointment of Guardian.
As part of the duties of the examining committee, it can subpoena your health records – not only from your own physician but from your employer’s insurance company as well as the Medical Information Bureau – and use the health records against you in determining whether you should be adjudicated incompetent.
Remember, once you or your loved one is adjudicated incompetent, the legal status changes from being an adult to a ward.  Imagine a total stranger in control of all of your everyday activities – having your right to vote taken away from you, having your Florida Driver License taken away from you, being unable to seek and/or retain employment, and being taken out of your home and placed in an Assisted Living Facility (ALF) – all because of the results of a biometric screening that you submitted to with your employer.
Additionally, beware of social workers lurking around the corner in the hospital, especially the ER.  If you or your loved one – particularly someone who is older – goes to the ER for a seemingly minor ailment, that social worker lurking around the corner could be developing a case against you to have a guardianship petition filed.  Not only the two petitions that commence a guardianship case are filed, usually by a religious based social services agency in which the hospital’s social worker works with, but another petition which fast tracks the person straight into guardianship, the emergency petition for appointment of guardian, is filed.
Speaking of the emergency petition for appointment of guardian, it is usually used when there is no one around that can make an important medical decision such as a relative.  I have read up on abuses of the emergency guardianship petition so that professional guardians can get a head start on seizing control over a person and his or her assets.
5.  If you are taking any prescription medications for a serious medical condition you have, don’t think your prescription history is private.  There is a company out there called Milliman that has a prescription history product called IntelliScript, and if you decide to apply for life insurance your prospective insurer can check this database to see if you have a serious medical condition – this time, by what medications you are taking.

And we can’t forget the FICO Medication Adherence Score, brought to you by the same people that bring you your credit score.  It is a numeric score that tells anyone how you adhere to your doctor’s treatment protocol including taking the medications you are prescribed.

Like the information that your health care insurer and the Medical Information Bureau have on you, the information that Milliman’s IntelliScript prescription database as well as your FICO Medication Adherence Score can be legally disclosed if your health records are subpoenaed as part of a legal proceeding, especially in a guardianship case if the three person examining committee conducting an inquisition of your personal affairs wants to take a look at these records.  I know, this is not related to biometric screenings but I threw the information in on prescription histories just to illustrate the privacy dangers you face when it comes to your personal health information.

So, these are things that you should know about before you submit yourself or a loved one to a biometric screening conducted by your employer.  You value the privacy of your health condition and the records of your health care, and it is your right.  A discussion of your personal health conditions should stay within your own doctor’s office, and your primary care doctor is the one that knows your health condition.
After all, your personal health conditions are none of your employer’s business.  I cannot over-emphasize this enough:  This is something for you to think about before you submit yourself to an employer sponsored biometric screening.

Updates to the Blog Community Guidelines

I have made a few minor edits to the community guidelines for both the Edward Ringwald Blog and the Interstate 275 Florida Blog.  You can view them here.
Among the highlights:
You are responsible for whatever comment you make on any of my blog entries.  In other words, you take full responsibility for your comment.
Remember, where you go and what you do on the World Wide Web is not private.  Here’s a web site to help you determine what your Internet Protocol (IP) address is:  What is my IP Address.  After all, your IP address is the string of numbers that identifies you on the public Internet.
This applies whether you post as an anonymous user or you post while you are logged in to your Google or Open ID account.  When you post under your Google or Open ID account, your comment is titled like this:
(user account name) said…
Your comment shows up here.
This is in addition to the commenting guidelines that are already in place, of which I will remind all of our commenters as stated below:
1.  Stay on the blog topic.
2.  Be respectful of others out there.
3.  Don’t hate or express hatred.
4.  Don’t use language that you wouldn’t use with your parents.  Or with your boss.  Or at your school teachers.  Or with anyone else in authority.
5.  No commercial messages of any kind.
6.  No infringing on the publicity and privacy rights of others.
7.  No personal identifying information such as automobile tag numbers, Social Security numbers, driver license numbers, financial account numbers and the like.
One more item I need to mention is that I have a no comment removal policy, much like the consumer site where once you post a comment about the experience you had with a business, it’s there forever.  However, comments that are moderated are screened prior to being allowed to be posted, as this blog is a family friendly blog for all ages.
I fully support the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which provides for freedom of lawful speech and freedom of lawful expression among other things.  As the blog you are reading is hosted on servers here in the United States (it’s hosted on Blogger, a part of online giant Google), and as the Fourth of July is just around the corner as I am writing this blog entry, I will defend my lawful right of free expression and free speech not only for the entries I write but for the comments you make.  To that end, my blog community guidelines for both the Edward Ringwald Blog and the Interstate 275 Florida Blog have support for the values enumerated in the First Amendment.

Is Wharton High School in Tampa still part of the United States?

Here’s an article that I have been recently following in The Tampa Tribune now that high school graduations for 2013 have come and gone:  Principal cuts off Wharton salutatorian in middle of graduation speech.  If you are an American that values the right of lawful free speech and expression, you need to keep reading this blog entry word for word.
After all, if you happen to be your senior class’ valedictorian or salutatorian and you have to give a speech at graduation, you are asked by your school principal to write a speech and run it by the principal for approval.  And this is what Wharton High salutatorian Harold Shaw Jr. did.
And when graduation day comes and you have to give that speech, it is normal to be nervous.  After all, you only get one chance at high school including graduation.
So graduation day for Wharton High came, and Harold Shaw Jr. gave his speech, which was approved by Wharton High Principal Brad Woods in the days before graduation.  Halfway through the graduation speech, according to The Tampa Tribune article, Principal Woods pulled the plug on what was supposed to be Harold Shaw Jr.’s speech to the Class of 2013.
What happened next will shock you, quoting from the Tribune article:
1.  Principal Brad Woods stated that he respected the principles of free speech.  What a lie Principal Woods made to all in attendance at the graduation ceremony.
2.  Next, Principal Woods decides to make a criminal out of Harold Shaw, Jr. by having him and his parents escorted off the premises by two Hillsborough Sheriff’s deputies working security detail at the ceremony.
3.  Harold Shaw, Jr. was allowed to pick up his high school diploma – two days after the ceremony.
Now here’s my take on how Harold Shaw Jr.’s were grossly violated by the actions of Wharton High Principal Brad Woods at the graduation ceremonies that took place at the Florida State Fairgrounds’ Expo Hall:
After reading the article not only at The Tampa Tribune but also 10 News (WTSP-TV) and Bay News 9, I think it is very clear that Principal Woods violated Harold Shaw Jr.’s civil rights.  That speech was already approved after so many revisions made well in advance.
By the way, Hillsborough Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia defended the actions of Wharton High Principal Brad Woods at Wharton High’s commencement ceremony, according to this 10 News (WTSP-TV) article.  Nothing more than a rubber stamp seal of approval that Wharton High School – as well as the Hillsborough County School District – tramples on the principles of American patriotism, liberty and democracy.

Besides, what kind of school district is Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia running?  How about lax supervision of students, as what happened tragically with 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero when she wandered off the campus of Rodgers Middle School.  How about treating students, especially high school students (and their parents too), more like criminals, using a Student Code of Conduct which parallels civil law such as what is found in Mexico.

On a side note, Mexican law is based on civil law.  Easiest explanation:  You are guilty of any offense until you prove your innocence.  Same way with the Hillsborough County School District’s Code of Student Conduct:  You as a student are guilty of any offense in the code of student conduct until you can prove otherwise, and nine times out of ten any appeal of disciplinary action taken by the principal is denied.  The burden of proof is on you, the student, not the administration.

Principal Woods, by his actions at Wharton High’s commencement ceremony, seriously undermined the values of American liberty and democracy – of which his faculty teaches to students who take required civics and American National Government classes.  Why have these classes in the very first place?
Perhaps Wharton High School Principal Brad Woods ought to consider organizing a study tour over the summer to a country where human rights and civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of lawful expression are not respected and where abuse by law enforcement is routine, such as Singapore which is rated partly free by Freedom House for laws that restrict freedom of speech, or to the Eastern European dictatorship of Belarus (rated by Freedom House as Not Free) whose leader, Alexander Lukashenko, suppresses any and all dissent including restrictions on freedom of speech among other things.
After all, school principals who care to erode parental rights, trample the civil liberties of students, and exercise control over students beyond the school campus (with the exception of school sponsored events held off campus) and turn students and parents into criminals for no reason do not deserve to be in the business of educating students in the very first place.  And on a side note, if school principals do want to trample on the principles of American patriotism as well as the principles of American liberty and democracy and the civil liberties of students – which is taught in classes such as civics and American National Government – take down the American flag that flies in front of your school and stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the school day.
Which ponders me to think:  Is Wharton High School in Tampa still part of the United States?  Judging from the actions of Principal Brad Woods at the commencement ceremony, I think Wharton High is slowly trying to secede from the United States.

And this is just my opinion.

Finally, I can’t close out this blog entry with a positive remark for Harold Shaw, Jr.:  Congratulations on a well deserved achievement, not only graduating from high school but graduating as the salutatorian of the Class of 2013!  You worked so hard for not only that high school diploma but that standard of distinction; don’t let anyone take that away from you!

Hurricane Season is Underway!

It’s here, and hurricane season is underway!  Here in St. Petersburg, we are lucky to have dodged the bullet especially since the close call we had with Hurricane Charley in 2004.  Besides, it’s amazing how nine years have gone by and it’s just a matter of time before St. Petersburg’s – and the rest of the Tampa Bay region’s – luck runs out with a major hurricane strike.  The recent brush with Tropical Storm Andrea should be the Tampa Bay region’s wake up call.
The question is this:  Have you made your hurricane action plan yet?
Preparing for a hurricane need not be elaborate, and it depends on your personal circumstances.  Perhaps the first item of planning is this:  Do you live in an evacuation zone or do you live in a safe zone?  The best way to find out is to go to your county’s emergency management website and take a look at a hurricane evacuation map; some counties also have a lookup tool in which you can find out if you are in a hurricane evacuation zone based on your street address.
Here are the links to hurricane evacuation street address lookup tools for Pinellas County as well as Hillsborough County.
It is believed that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to hurricane preparedness.  Now that you know if your home is in an evacuation zone, you can answer the next question:  Do I stay or do I go?
If it’s determined that you can stay – whether it may be a non-evacuation zone such as in Lealman (the unincorporated Pinellas County community sandwiched between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park) or in an evacuation zone which is not under mandatory evacuation orders – the time to prepare your home is now, not when a hurricane watch is issued for our area.
In fact, Pinellas County Emergency Management has prepared a concise two-page kit for those of you that can shelter in place during a hurricane.  Among the items listed is food that you do not have to cook, as electric power will more than likely be out for an extended period.  You will want to add first aid supplies to your hurricane kit as well.
On the other hand, if it’s determined that you live in an evacuation zone and under mandatory evacuation orders, you need a plan as to where you will relocate temporarily during the storm.  Ask yourself:
1.  Will I go to a friend’s house?
2.  Will I go to a motel or hotel outside the evacuation area?
3.  Will I go to a public shelter?
Option 1 is the best if you have the means of getting there before it gets worse.  Just make sure that you do not have to cross major evacuation routes to get there, as certain evacuation routes – such as routes leading out of the Pinellas beaches – will in most likelihood be a one way route making crossing difficult, if not impossible.
Option 2 is the best, tied with Option 1, if a hotel or motel located outside the evacuation zone is better for you to reach.  Here’s a great tip I would like to share with you when I had to evacuate for Hurricane Charley in 2004:  As soon as the weather maps determine that a hurricane will more than likely head our way, and prior to a hurricane watch being issued, go to the websites of the major hotel chains and check for room availability.  Once you find the room you want, at hopefully the price you can afford, book the room and use a major credit card as the guarantee.  That way, if the storm does take a turn and your area comes under an evacuation order, at least you will have a place to go to.
Now if in the event that things change and the hurricane goes somewhere else, you can always cancel the hotel reservation.  Be sure to get a cancellation number when you cancel so that you can have something as a reference in the event of an issue with your credit card issuer.
Option 3 is the very least, and should be considered only as a last resort.  Public hurricane shelters are, for the most part, located in public schools and you will more than likely be sleeping on a cot or on a hard floor.  Besides, you do not have the privacy like what you would get in Options 1 or 2.  For that reason, you want to consider either a friend’s house or a hotel/motel as your first option.
The same thing goes for those of you that live in a mobile home, even though your mobile home park is in a non-evacuation area.  You do not want to be in a mobile home, especially during the most severe part of the hurricane.  For that reason, evacuation orders when issued include residents of all mobile homes which must evacuate at all evacuation levels.
For those of you that live in a condominium unit, if your complex comes under a mandatory evacuation order you must evacuate.  If you live in a high rise condominium it is unsafe to take shelter on a higher level, as wind speeds get higher the more higher you go in the building.  The same thing goes for if you live in a two-story townhome – again, the wind speeds get higher even on the second floor of your townhome!
Now that we have the question of stay or go covered and what you should do, there is another task that you need to perform:  Check your insurance coverage.  In fact, now is a great time to review your homeowners’ or condominium unit owners’ policy with your insurance agent.
Another item we need to cover is your important documentation, both for you and your home as well as your vehicle.  According to Pinellas County Emergency Management here is a list of documents that you should take with you:

Driver’s license or ID card  (a United States Passport or Passport Card will also work as identification if you do not carry a Florida ID card or driver’s license)
Important numbers and emergency contacts
Credit cards and list of creditors
Medical records and blood type
Prescription information (list of medications, dosage, prescription numbers, etc.)
Doctor’s contact information
Cash and bank account numbers
List of savings and investments, including CDs, stocks, bonds and mutual funds
Household inventory: paper copy, photos, video tape or computer disk
List of insurance policies with name of company, type of policy and policy number
Copy of wills, trust documents and living wills
Titles for your house, car and other property
Birth, marriage, divorce, death and adoption certificates, and passports
List of family advisors, such as accountant, attorney and religious leader
Educational and military records
Other special papers that would be difficult or impossible to replace if lost

Which brings us to the next item:  Do you have a scanner or a multi-function printer and scanner for your computer?  Believe me, you will want to scan those important documents, especially documents that are difficult or impossible to replace if lost, and save them on your computer as PDF files.  As for the documents themselves, these should be kept in a safe deposit box.  Besides, multi-function printer and scanner units don’t cost much and it is the best investment you will ever make.

Speaking of computers, you will also want to invest in an external hard drive and back up the data on a regular interval.  That way, in the event of a hurricane evacuation you can easily disconnect and carry the hard drive with you.

Be sure that you back up your data from your computers on regular intervals, not to mention downloading and installing the latest Windows updates.  You do not want to be rushed in any way when you are watching something on 10 News (WTSP-TV) only to have your program interrupted by a tersely speaking voiceover announcer:  This is a 10 News special weather bulletin.  Or if you are watching something on Bay News 9 and – all of a sudden – the breaking news music and graphics come up followed by the voice of a Bay News 9 anchor.
Now that hurricane season is underway, and the recent wake up call we experienced from Tropical Storm Andrea, now is not the time for our region to become complacent as far as hurricane preparedness is concerned.  We hope for the best all the way through the end of hurricane season on 30 November, but we need to be prepared for the worst especially if the worst comes.

Railroad Crossing Safety

Being a proud member of the Florida Railroad Museum since January 2013  (and not to mention the complimentary train rides on regular ride weekends and the opportunity to volunteer for the annual Day Out With Thomas event over two weekends in March), I have noticed that there is no crossing protection on the route the museum takes between Parrish and Willow.  Specifically, there is no crossing protection other than a crossbuck and a stop sign on Dickey Road in northern Manatee County, which is halfway between Parrish and Willow.

In fact, the SW Line does not have any crossing protection, save for two crossings that are on the CSX owned portion of the SW Line in Palmetto adjacent to the junction with the AZA Line (CSX’s main line from Tampa to Bradenton) south of 10th Street.  Past 10th Street and going northeast on the SW Line the only crossing protection for the SW Line – both CSX and Florida Power and Light owned portions – is overpasses at US 41 and Interstate 75 as well as crossbucks and stop signs on the level crossings similar to Dickey Road.

I recently came across this video on YouTube from Glenn Miley (his YouTube user name is GMRailroading) which proves the point on railroad crossing safety, and I would like you to watch this short 17 second video:

While this was a staged train vs. truck crash which I understand was being done for a school project, we can learn some useful tips when you approach a railroad crossing anywhere:
1.  Remember, anytime is train time.  A railroad can put a train on that railroad track at any time, day or night.  If you think on the lines of “oh, they don’t run trains at this hour of the night on this track“, you are wrong.  Seriously wrong.
2.  When you see the circular advance railroad warning sign – a circle shape sign with the X and the letters RR in black on a yellow background (see the two examples below) – this is the time to begin slowing down for the railroad crossing which is just ahead, not the time for being on your cell phone or texting.  In fact, you should put down that cell phone while you are behind the wheel in the very first place; that phone call or business transaction can wait until you have arrived at your destination safely.
Thomas arriving into the station
3.  Most railroad crossings come with automatic signal flashers and gates.  But beware:  A substantial number of railroad crossings consist of a simple crossbuck and stop sign, such as the one on Dickey Road in northern Manatee County as pictured below.

4.  If you are approaching the railroad crossing and the lights and gates start and the bell sounds, STOP!  Be sure to stop at the stop bar well before the gate, especially if you are the first car to stop at the crossing.
5.  If you are approaching a crossbuck only railroad crossing and you see the headlights of an approaching train, STOP!  Looks can be deceiving; a train which you may think is far away is in fact just around the corner.  Be sure to stop well behind the marked stop bar or sign.
6.  Be mindful of vehicles which must stop at all railroad crossings regardless of whether a train is coming or not:  School buses and tanker trucks carrying hazardous materials are a few of the vehicles that must stop at all railroad crossings.
Now what do you do if in the event your vehicle breaks down on a railroad crossing?
The first thing you do is to get yourself and your passengers out of the car immediately and well away from the tracks.  This is for your safety regardless of whether a train is coming or not.
On all railroad crossings is a small sign that lets you know who the owner of the railroad track is, the crossing identification numbers as well as a telephone number to call in case of emergency.  The photo below shows you a CSX sign mounted on a crossing:
If your vehicle stalls on a CSX owned track, immediately contact CSX Emergency at 1 (800) 232-0144.  Be prepared to tell the CSX operator the crossing ID number and the milepost location.
If you cannot find a sign posted on the crossing, immediately call 911 and let the 911 operator know what happened. Be prepared to give the 911 operator your location.
Now if your vehicle is stalled on a railroad crossing and a train is fast approaching:
1.  Get everyone out of the vehicle FAST!!!
2.  Move everyone away from the track in the opposite direction of the approaching train.  This will minimize any injury from flying debris as the train hits the vehicle.
3.  A vehicle – and its items such as CD’s, a laptop computer, etc. can be replaced.  That’s why you got auto insurance.  A human life cannot.
For you students out there riding the school bus to and from school, there is one very important safety rule you must know when it comes to railroad crossing safety:  When your bus approaches the railroad crossing, the bus driver must come to a complete stop and open the front bus door to listen for trains.  At the same time, the bus driver will turn on the dome lights to let you know that you must observe absolute silence while at the railroad crossing.
So, remember the cardinal rule when you approach any railroad crossing:  Stop, look and listen!  It might sound like an inconvenience to you, especially if you are in a hurry to get home to watch the latest and greatest episode of American Idol, but that few minutes delayed could well save your life.  And besides, you won’t be breaking news on Bay News 9, 10 News (WTSP-TV), ABC Action News (WFTS-TV), NewsChannel 8 (WFLA-TV) or the Fox 13 Eyewitness News (WTVT-TV) regarding a railroad crossing accident.
Or, end up on a YouTube video of motorists that drive around lowered railroad crossing gates, like this one that was recently made by Alan Smith (his YouTube name is Millenniumforce) showing motorists in the Tampa area who are in a hurry to be somewhere rather than be inconvenienced by only a couple of minutes to let a train pass by:

Finally, here’s a great site that is dedicated to railroad crossing safety you may want to take a look at:  Operation Lifesaver.  After all, Operation Lifesaver is dedicated to all aspects of safety around railroad tracks, not just grade crossings.

More proof that TransUnion destroys people’s futures

Not too long ago I reported about how TransUnion makes your credit report a public record, despite federal laws to the contrary that mandate that your credit report be kept private.  Well, I just read more proof of how TransUnion will do anything to destroy your future well being as far as your financial affairs are concerned besides making your credit report public record.

That proof is a recent article in the St. Petersburg Times by staff writer Drew Harwell about a New Port Richey resident, George Albright, who experienced tremendous difficulty trying to get a mortgage, two years after having to do a short sale to get out of an underwater mortgage situation.  Why all this difficulty?

It all boils down to how a short sale is reported to the credit bureaus.  In George Albright’s situation, according to the article, the short sale was being reported on Mr. Albright’s credit report as a foreclosure, even though no foreclosure took place.  In other words, the mortgage lender reports to the credit bureaus that a short sale took place and the balance was settled, but somehow the credit bureaus are probably taking it on themselves to report a short sale as a foreclosure.

A foreclosure may sound bad on a credit report.  However, a bankruptcy is the worst:  It is akin to a nuclear attack on your credit report.  Foreclosures stay on your credit report for 7 years, while bankruptcies stay on your credit report for 10 years.

And I think TransUnion – who is known for its credit related scoring products such as their insurance score and employment score products – is doing everything to make sure that good people who have had to do a short sale of their home or have had late payments due to a change of circumstances (such as job layoff, for example) experience tremendous difficulties applying for a job, getting affordable automobile insurance or even getting a mortgage after waiting a few years.  In other words, TransUnion will do everything to deliberately destroy your financial future.

Besides, we work in order to pay our debts.  After all, paying your debts is a moral obligation.  Unfortunately, when one loses his or her job through no fault of their own (such as in a job layoff), how are the debts going to be paid?  For instance, ask the employees of Universal Health Care Group, a downtown St. Petersburg health insurance firm recently shuttered by the State of Florida Department of Financial Services which resulted in job layoffs – I imagine what Universal Health Care Group’s employees are going through, now that they are out of work.

Going back to the St. Petersburg Times article, in 2011 TransUnion issued a report called Life after Foreclosure and Hidden Opportunities, in which “life event defaulters who missed loan payments during the recession are otherwise good credit risks”.  However, Transunion’s spokesman, Clifton O’Neal, mentioned that “short sales are, in fact, indicative of future elevated credit risk.”

Mr. Clifton O’Neal, are you happy that TransUnion is in the business of systematically destroying people’s futures?  Do you like tarnishing the credit reports of people that had to do a short sale of their home as a foreclosure when in fact a foreclosure did not take place?  And do you like making people’s credit reports public record contrary to federal law that prohibits the practice, thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act?

If you are one of these homeowners such as George Albright of New Port Richey who has had to sell to get out of an underwater mortgage, here are some helpful tips:

1.  First and foremost, hire a competent attorney who knows real estate issues, especially foreclosure defense.  You need to have an attorney to guide you through the legal labyrinth when it comes to short sales and foreclosures.

Should you be served with a summons for foreclosure on your home, hire an attorney very fast!!!  Foreclosure is more serious than a short sale.

2.  Be careful of mortgage lenders that ask you for a statement of financial affairs during the short sale process.  That information can be used against you to pursue a deficiency judgment against you after the short sale takes place.

3.  Policies vary from lender to lender when it comes to getting a mortgage after you have been through a short sale.  In this regard, you may want to employ the services of a mortgage broker to assist you.

4.  There is hope for you, even after a short sale or a foreclosure.  Again, the services of a mortgage broker are valuable in this regard.

5.  Consider including a statement in your credit report detailing what happened with the short sale.  The statement cannot be more than 150 words and you can mail that statement to all three credit bureaus along with a cover letter requesting that your statement be included in your credit file.

Whenever you write to the credit bureaus, always be sure that you send your letter Certified Mail with Return Receipt Requested – NEVER ordinary First Class Mail.  This proves that someone at the credit bureau received your letter.  Same thing goes for correspondence to your mortgage lender.

As for the credit bureaus such as TransUnion, mortgage settlements that are the result of a short sale should be recorded properly and not recorded otherwise.  It’s like a physician who writes the final diagnosis on your chart just before you leave the hospital for having that emergency appendectomy done that instead of your diagnosis being appendicitis, it is a damaging psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Don’t these physician diagnostic statements somehow make it to your file at the Medical Information Bureau?

TransUnion needs to stop systematically destroying the financial futures of Americans who have had to do a short sale due to their home value being underwater.  TransUnion needs to stop destroying the financial futures of Americans, period:  That includes misreporting items on a credit report to making a credit report a public record.

Credit and Debit Danger at the Pump!

It’s a nice weekend afternoon, and you’re out there on Interstate 275 going for a weekend drive.  Somehow you take a glance at your fuel tank and that needle is slowly gliding towards ¼ of a tank.  You spy a reputable gas station at the next exit, so you exit Interstate 275 and drive on in to the gas station.
OK.  You pull up to the pump on the side where you can insert the nozzle into your tank.  Out goes your credit card, plug it into the pump reader, pump your gas and be on your way.  Whoa!  Before you plug that credit or debit card into that gas pump reader, you may want to continue reading this blog entry of the dangers you face when you use your credit or debit card at the pump.
The first danger of using your credit card at the pump reader is the authorization hold.  This is a set dollar amount that is preauthorized onto your credit card, which is released to an amount equal to your purchase when the gas station uploads their credit card transactions at a certain time of day.  Unfortunately, this type of activity is legal.
Most gas stations place a hold of around $75 – more than likely higher than that – the moment you plug that credit card into the reader.  You pump your gas and you only get $15.  What happens is that the $75 hold is deducted from your available credit until the gas station manager uploads the day’s credit card transactions to their bank.
For those of you that have extremely small credit limits on your credit cards, those authorization holds can seriously deplete your available credit despite the fact that you did not spend that money.  The end result is that when you go to make a purchase on your credit card that has that small credit limit, the card comes back declined.
You got that right, declined.
The second danger of using your credit card at the reader is that if you are using your debit card.  Debit cards – when used with your PIN number – withdraw the amount of your purchase immediately.  The major difference is that unlike a credit card where it accesses your credit line, a debit card accesses your checking account.
Most reputable gas stations allow you to use your debit card at the pump.  After you insert your debit card you are asked for your PIN.  A small authorization hold of usually $1 is placed just to be sure that your debit card is valid, unlike the large authorization holds when you use your credit card.
Now I have heard a lot of horror stories about the use of your debit card at the pump.  One major horror story is when the gas station claims that debit cards are accepted at the pump, only to find out that your debit card is run through as a credit card purchase resulting in a large $75 or more authorization hold.
What does this mean for you?  A large authorization hold for a small purchase means that a good chunk of your available checking account balance is frozen until it is released when the gas station uploads the day’s transactions to their bank.  Translation:  Your checking account is thrown into an overdrawn status, even though you only spent a small amount for gas.
Unfortunately, there are gas stations and convenience stores that want to deceive you out of your money by imposing those unreasonable authorization holds.  Their owners and store managers don’t care about you – all they care about is making more money in order to fatten their bottom line.
A third danger of using your credit card at the pump is the high danger of identity theft.  Unscrupulous individuals out there place a device onto the pump reader called a skimmer; it is for the purpose of collecting credit card numbers from unsuspecting people and using them.
So, what can you do to minimize your risk when you pay for gasoline?
First, and foremost, steer clear of gas station “pay at the pump” readers.  Go inside and tell the attendant how much you need (you can estimate if you would like) and hand the card to the attendant like you would do with a traditional credit or debit card transaction.  After your purchase is processed, you can pump what you need.
If you pump less than what you prepaid for, the attendant will give you a final receipt showing how much you actually paid.  Unlike the pump reader mega-holds, the excess amount will fall off your account much quicker.
For example, let’s say you estimate that your car will take $20 worth of gas.  You go inside and the attendant sets the pump up for a $20 prepaid amount for you.  You pump the gas, and your car only takes $15.  As such, you return inside and the attendant will give you a receipt for the $15 you spent; the unused prepaid balance of $5 is released to your account much quicker.
Second, if time is a factor and you have to use a pump reader, at least use your credit card rather than a debit card.  Just take your credit limit and your available credit into consideration.
Third, if you use the pump reader, if the card reader slot doesn’t look right or if it’s wobbly in any way, do not use the pump reader – instead, go inside and pay the attendant on duty.  The saying is this:  If it doesn’t look right don’t do it.
Fourth, if you encounter a rude or otherwise discourteous attendant (including convenience store clerks) and the attendant wants you to use the pay at the pump reader, take your business elsewhere.  It is a sign that the convenience store does not care about customer service.  It is your credit and/or debit card, and you have every right to protect that card from fraudulent use.
After all, it’s your money.  Don’t let these dishonest convenience store associates deny you access to your hard earned money with their ultra-high authorization holds when you pay at the pump.
Besides, there’s a lot of good convenience stores and gas stations out there that want your business.  Unfortunately, there are a number of convenience stores and gas stations that pay lip service to customer service and don’t deserve your business.

Let School Officials Carry Guns in Schools? NO!

This St. Petersburg Times editorial is shocking:  School officials (such as your child’s school principal) being allowed to carry guns on campus.
Sound scary?  Keep reading.
Well, if legislation which has been approved by the Education Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives makes it through the Florida Legislature, it would authorize school principals to authorize someone to carry a gun on campus.  But who would that authorized person be?  The principal him/herself?  An assistant principal?  A teacher?
In other words, if this bill passes, in a nutshell it would allow school officials such as a school principal to declare open season on students.  Why?  A teacher who would be authorized by law could pull out a weapon on students as a form of classroom control, among other things.
If you think this is scary, here is another St. Petersburg Times article about several eighth graders at Osceola Middle School who were terrorized at the hands of a toxic bully teacher, Shawn Siede.  According to that article, Mr. Siede quit rather than suffer the full wrath of the Office of Professional Standards of the Pinellas County School District.  Just think for a moment:  If this proposed law on school officials being allowed to carry guns on campus was already law in the State of Florida, God knows what would happen to your child in school?
The answer is very simple:  WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN!!!
Schools are supposed to be a safe place for learning for your child.  Schools are not supposed to be state penitentiaries nor Chinese Reeducation Through Labor camps nor closed mini-North Koreas (does Virgil Mills Elementary in Ellenton (Manatee County) and Sand Pine Elementary in Wesley Chapel (Pasco County) and their tyrannical anti-parental rights principals, Mike Rio and Todd Cluff respectively, ring a bell here?) for that matter.
Furthermore, Florida has statutes on the books that make it loud and clear:  Absolutely no weapons on school campuses, period.  This is one part of the Florida Statutes that should not be changed at all.
Call, email or write your legislators today.  Let them know that you vehemently oppose House Bill HB 1097 sponsored by Representative Greg Steube of Sarasota and that you support keeping our public schools safe.  After all, allowing school administrators to carry weapons on campus is not the answer, neither is turning our public schools into correctional facilities for that matter.