Why City Residents' Auto Insurance Costs Too Much
Good ideas can easily get lost in the Good Ol' Boy Shuffle unless citizens hold politicians' feet to the fire.

by A. Robert Kaufman

The expense of owning a motor vehicle determined a recent gubernatorial election in Virginia. Auto insurance almost cost the governor of New Jersey her seat.

It's about time we revisited the auto insurance situation in Baltimore-where rates are two to four times higher than in surrounding counties-and account for one more reason for urban flight.

The Mayor and City Council, not entirely deaf to public concern, have been going through the motions of "doing something about it" for some time now. Former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke led the charge for a while to take the matter to the insurance commissioner and, when that predictably failed, she was going to take the matter to court, but she never did.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -not to be upstaged by Ms. Clarke, who was preparing to contest his seat-spent $10,000 of city money to prepare a report to convince the General Assembly representatives to equalize state rates by increasing the rates in their home counties. No kidding. He really did.

While this charade was going on, starting in 1989 a small group of local activists began calling for the city to help its citizens create a non-profit cooperative which would be owned by the policy holders and sell auto and home insurance at cost throughout the state.

We called ourselves the City Wide Insurance Coalition (CWIC) (later shortened to City Wide Coalition, or CWC). We sent speakers to every community organization, trade union, religious and other group which would hear us. By 1994 we had convinced 180 such dues-paying organizations to join our effort.

In June 1990, Mayor Schmoke told me that the $52,000 feasibility study we had proposed to his representatives seven months earlier was a "good idea." He then pledged to fund half of the cost of the study after we raised the other half. "Why," we asked, "if you think it's such a good idea, shouldn't the city fund the entire $52,000?"

"Say the word and I will, Bob," he replied, "but know that if the city does fund the entire amount it will have to go to competitive bidding and it could take months and months."

It took us over a year to "borrow" $26,000, without collateral, from some 50 local churches, organizations and individuals. (A couple of years after the $26,000 had been so painfully raised, Mary Pat Clarke told us that the mayor had misrepresented the situation and that he could have raised the entire $52,000 without competitive bidding!)

The feasibility study indicated that Baltimore drivers could save, on average, 21% on their auto insurance in the very first year. This justified a research and development (R&D) study.

After another full year of stalling, the Mayor released $40,000 of the $150,000 needed for the R&D study and demanded that CWC raise another $60,000 before he would release the final $40,000.

CWC declined the offer and, in the interest of some 200,000 motor vehicle owners, demanded he release the entire $150,000 without further delay.

City Hall moved only when our collective strength made them move. If Baltimore's elected officials really had wanted such an insurance co-op, the Mayor could have put it in his budget as early as 1991.

Instead, a 14-month charade ensued, during which all of the locally elected politicians conspired to pretend that Councilman Melvin Stukes (6th District) was raising $60,000 from private sources to help fund the $150,000 research and development study. The Board of Estimates even "lent" Stukes $10,000 of taxpayers' money to "facilitate his raising the $60,000." But Stukes never raised the money. The $10,000 "loan" has to this day not been publicly accounted for.

When we finally faced down this sham (CWIC members attended City Council meetings wearing Pinocchio noses), the Mayor revised his tactics, pretending that the previous 14 month charade had never happened, and agreed to pay for the R&D study with city money.

The only problem was that the Mayor short-changed the $150,000 study by $50,000. That money was to develop financing for the insurance co-op. The mayor told us that we didn't need that $50,000, as we could buy insurance wholesale from the insurance industry and save policy-holders the same amount of money-an average of over 20%.

Consequently, in June of 1996, CWC went along with the effort to create the Community Association Buyers Group (CABG). But, we contended from the very beginning that we considered CABG as merely an interim effort while we continued to struggle for a truly non-profit insurance co-op.

At the same time, we began the search for a Council member we thought we could trust to usher through the City Council and the General Assembly legislation that would let the people decide this issue by putting a $9.25 million dollar bond on the ballot in the next general election (November 1998) to create a non-profit co-op to sell auto and home insurance at cost throughout the state.

We thought we had found such a trustworthy person in Joan Carter Conway, newly elected Council member from the 3rd District. She agreed to carry the ball for us. She told us the entire legislative process would take about a year, but that she would initiate the process in plenty of time.

When she was appointed to the State Senate in the fall of '96, she assured us that her appointment would only make our efforts easier, as she would usher it through the state legislature and that she would have one of her colleagues usher it through City Council after she left for Annapolis.

In December of 1996, in response to several anxious phone calls, she assured us that we still had five weeks and that she would arrange a meeting among herself, CWC, Legislative Reference, the City Law Department, and one or more of her City Council colleagues.

It never happened.

Three and then four weeks later, after several frantic phone messages, all of which Ms. Conway ignored, we phoned some of the organizations in her former 3rd Councilmanic District.

Subsequently, we received a very brisk phone call from Ms. Conway, informing us that she had discussed our efforts with a few of her new senatorial colleagues. They, she reported, had told her that-the effort would fail in Annapolis.

"I will not make a fool of myself," she declared, "by introducing legislation which will fail."

"Why," we wanted to know, "would other state senators not support giving Baltimore the right to create a co-op which would sell policies, at cost, throughout the state?"

"Because," she replied, "it would cause the rates to go up in their counties." She then very impatiently refused to discuss the patent illogic of such an assertion.

When we reminded her that she had agreed to have one of her colleagues usher our effort through City Council, she replied, "Yes, and I told you who that colleague would be." We replied that we didn't recall her naming anyone, but would like to know who. She answered that we only remember what we want to remember and hung up the phone.

We have subsequently asked Lawrence Bell's office to pick up the ball that Joan Carter Conway dropped and we subsequently have phoned every City Council member.

No one has even given us the respect to return a phone call.

City Council President Bell's office never responded.

Experience had already bitterly taught us that calling Kurt Schmoke's office would likewise be an effort in futility.

It is now too late, we are told, to get our ballot initiative on the November 1998 ballot. That means a delay of yet another year before our elected "representatives" will permit us to decide whether or not we want this city to borrow $9,250,000 to create a nonprofit insurance co-op which could save most of city residents a few to several hundred dollars every year-for the rest of our lives.

Yet, in contrast, two private investors, both big financial contributors to the local political establishment, expect to have little trouble in getting city government subsidies of $42.1 million to $50 million to build luxury hotels downtown for their own private profit.

The insurance industry and their pals have won again.

We, CWC, have failed to overcome them-and their paid-for politicians. But not for lack of trying-with our newsletters, business meetings, forums, press interviews, and over 850 presentations (so far) to community organizations.

We've fought the good fight -- and will continue to do so. But what about the citizen voters?

It's obviously not enough to "encourage" CWC to "keep up the good work."

It simply doesn't work without strong and consistent pressure from the people.

So what are we going to do about it?

Our strength resides in community support.

And community support simply hasn't been enough to make the Mayor or City Council serve city residents-as opposed to serving the insurance industry, which they so shamelessly do.

We know that the community wants such a co-op. The politicians know this too. But they don't give a tinker's damn what the citizens want, so long as the voters don't do anything to make what they want happen.

Don't Baltimoreans know how to express the outrage they surely must feel?

Couldn't they deluge City Hall with resolutions and phone calls?

Couldn't they demonstrate, and sit-in, on their City Council and Board of Estimates meetings? Pigeon-hole the politicians and hold their feet to the fire when they attend community meetings?

Couldn't we develop candidates to run against the incumbents in the next election-candidates who would be immune to the big money-boys?

Couldn't more people become CWC activists-attend business meetings and forums, carry out tasks, staff literature tables at festivals, phone organizations to set up speaking engagements, purchase bumper stickers and buttons, pay dues?

We could either make our elected officials represent our true interests now, or we could replace them in '99.

Pick up your phone and call me at 410-728-8611. If there is sufficient support, we could begin another thrust when City Council reconvenes in January. If not, we won't.

Again, it's your decision Baltimore. We're waiting for your call.

Shortly after CWC began its agitation for a non-profit insurance co-op, two leading for-profit insurance companies began advertising lower rates in Baltimore City.

GEICO has lowered its rates in Baltimore an average of 15%. Prudential has also been offering a significant drop in rates in selected city neighborhoods near the beltway.

To our knowledge, these two companies have not lowered their rates in any other comparable city.

The only variable has been the struggle CWC has been waging.

Consequently, it could well be that CWC has already saved unknown thousands of drivers unknown millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, in the roughly 18 months since the formation of the CABG, only 35 policies had been sold as of 11-14-97. (So much for the Mayor's assurance that we didn't need a non-profit cooperative!) New contractual arrangements may enable CABG to save premium costs for larger numbers of drivers in the near future.

A. Robert Kaufman is CWC's organizer. The Chronicle would welcome and will publish elected officials' responses to this CWC account of events.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on January 7, 1998.