*Asked & Answered
Asked – Our insurance was cancelled and with the new policy the premium sky rocketed. There is not enough money in the operating account or budget to pay for the new premium. Can we pay from reserves?
Answered – California has suffered significant wildfire damage in recent years. Coupled with several years of severe drought and increased wildfire risk, fewer and fewer insurance companies are willing to write policies for communities that may experience wildfire damage. In addition, admitted carriers are highly regulated by the Department of Insurance, which limits the amounts they may charge for insurance premiums. This has caused many associations to be cancelled or non-renewed by admitted carriers or those in the “primary” market.
As a result, HOAs are left to purchase insurance from the non-admitted or “surplus” market. Carriers in the surplus market are less regulated and, when demand is high and supply is low, prices skyrocket. The HOA’s CC&Rs generally include language specifying that the association “shall” purchase insurance, and may require coverage to provide for “full replacement cost.” If the association does not purchase the insurance as required by the governing documents, the association and its board of directors could be exposed to liability for failure to obtain adequate coverage.
So, what is an HOA to do if it doesn’t have the money to pay for the skyrocketed insurance premiums? Yes, an HOA may temporarily borrow funds from reserves in this situation without membership approval because this act would be needed to “meet short-term cash flow requirements or other expenses.” (Civ. Code § 5515(a).) This action should only be taken with the guidance from the association’s legal counsel due to the significant procedural requirements that must be satisfied under Civil Code section 5515. Those requirements include, among others, providing the membership with notice of the board’s intent to borrow the funds. The notice must additionally include the reasons the transfer is needed, the options for repayment, a description of how the funds will be restored to the reserve account within one (1) year of the date of the transfer, and a whether a special assessment will be utilized for that purpose.
A special assessment will likely be the mechanism utilized to restore the borrowed reserve funds. However, special assessments greater than five percent (5%) of an HOA’s annual budget cannot be imposed without membership approval. Civil Code section 5605 fortunately exempts boards from having to comply with this membership approval requirement in situations where the special assessment (regardless of its amount) is needed to address an emergency expense which “could not have reasonably been foreseen by the board when preparing and distributing the annual budget report.” While this emergency special assessment could allow for the board to restore the borrowed reserve funds the first time, the question then becomes whether levying a similar assessment in future years would remain a legally valid option as the assessment would no longer be tied to an unforeseen expense. HOAs should therefore consult with legal counsel on this issue before imposing an emergency special assessment to understand its implications on future budget planning.
HOAs should also consult with legal counsel and their association’s insurance professionals for guidance as to how the increased premium expense may be mitigated carrying forward. For example, boards may be able to reduce their association’s insurance premiums by increasing deductible amounts. To illustrate, if the HOA has a $5,000 deductible, an increase to $25,000 or higher may be sufficient to generate a significant premium decrease under the master policy. That is because more risk (the higher deductible amount) is being transferred from the association’s master carrier onto the individual homeowners and the carriers of their respective HO-6 insurance policies. The HO-6 (aka “unit owner’s insurance”) policies are designed to cover anything that the association’s master policy does not—namely, anything below the deductible on the association’s master policy. Most sets of CC&Rs fortunately allow the board to make these adjustments to deductible amounts without triggering the need for any membership approval or vote on the matter.
Other options may include reducing the scope of insurance coverage the association is required to purchase under the CC&Rs. For example, if the CC&Rs require full replacement cost, or an ‘All-In’ policy, consider an amendment to a ‘Bare Walls’ policy, which only covers the common areas. This type of amendment would likely require membership approval and should therefore only be considered if the board is ready to devote the time and resources needed to properly educate the membership and secure enough participation in the voting process. We typically recommend in these situations that the board conduct one (or more) townhall meetings to show the cost comparisons of (a) the special assessment(s) and/or assessment increase(s) that would be needed to maintain All-In coverage over the coming years versus (b) shifting to Bare Wall coverage for the association and each homeowner only incurring a minor increase in premium under the average HO-6 policy.
||This is often successful in giving the membership a clear and powerful explanation as to why voting for the amendment is in their best interest; in our experience, this substantially increases the likelihood that the ballot measure will be successful.
-Blog post authored by TLG Attorney, Steven J. Tinnelly, Esq. and Ramona Acosta, PCAM.