Friday, January 29, 2010
Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee Meets
Yesterday I traveled to Austin to meet again with the Advisory Committee for the Texas Structural Pest Control Service (SPCS). As usual, I am posting some of the highlights. This committee was set up as a way to continue to have public and professional input into the SPCS after the dissolution (Sunsetting) of the former Structural Pest Control Board in 2008.
Unlike the former Board, we don't have any authority--our purpose is merely advisory--but the meeting does provide a window into the issues and concerns facing the SPCS.
Maron Finley with SPCS started off the meeting by updating the committee on HB4159 that was introduced last fall into the U.S. House of Representatives. I blogged earlier this month about this bill, which would have the effect of undoing all the work done to date on Texas school IPM laws and regulations. It seems that the TDA, though they can't hold an official stance, is also concerned about the impact of the bill, and their staff is keeping an eye on its progress. The committee decided to draft a letter that would be sent to legislators, offering our take on the probable impact of legislation. A letter will be brought to the next committee meeting in April for committee approval.
Jimmy Bush, Assistant Commissioner for Pesticide Programs at Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), spoke about the ongoing process of assimilating the SPCS into TDA. He noted that at the beginning they had basically "forklifted" the old agency (the Board) into TDA, knowing that eventually the system and processes of the old board would have to be fitted into the agency's existing system. Although he envisions leaving the old Board business model basically the same, his office is working hard to streamline paperwork for pest control licensees and the agency. Part of this is being accomplished by developing a website where licensees could view and even update their licensing information online. This would save paperwork and manpower for simple administrative changes, such as a technician moving from one company to another. Under the new system each licensed technician will have an account that would show their license information, including their CEU count, etc. The SPCS is seeking ideas on what PMPs would like to see in this system. I'm reminded of the new Windows 7 ads: "Windows 7 was my idea!" Now's your chance to write TDA a letter and make the SPCS site "your idea".
Bush said that fee increases are not currently on the table, but there may be some fee restructuring, especially for apprentice and technician licenses. Many of the operational changes, such as migrating licenses to the TDA database system, will be invisible to license holders. The website is one change that should be immediately apparent. Currently Bush hopes that the new system will be operational in 2-3 months.
One of the other behind the scenes activities at TDA is preparation of a 5% agency cut, due to the Legislative Budget Board by mid-February. Most Texas state agencies, including Texas AgriLife Extension, have been directed by the state to plan a 5% cut. The committee then discussed the fate of license fees collected by TDA. Like most fee-collecting agencies in Texas, all fees and fines collected by the TDA must go into the state General Fund. Traditionally, the SPCS and the former board bring more into state coffers than they spend in enforcement and administration.
The committee spent a considerable amount of time discussing how TDA should administer new rules requiring school IPM coordinators (IPMCs) to get 6 hours of continuing education every three years. This was our second time to discuss the issue. At last month's meeting most of the committee elected to allow IPMCs to obtain any CEUs that might be relevant to school pest control count toward the 6 hour requirement. I was uncomfortable with that decision and requested that the committee consider an alternative proposal. Actually there were two alternative proposals discussed: (1) to create a new CEU category for school IPM and require some or all 6 hours to come from that category; or (2) to require all 6 hours to come from an approved refresher course, similar to the courses now offered for new IPMCs. Disappointingly, the committee could not reach consensus on any of the choices, but I think the sometimes lively discussion did serve a purpose. It brought out all the points of view, with pros and cons for the different options. Now it appears it will be up to TDA to sort out the different views and come up with a plan that can be open to public hearings.
Mike Kelly and Jimmy Bush briefed the committee on the department's concerns about WDI reports. Wood Destroying Insect reports remain a low-level, chronic concern to the department--something the SPCS would like to see improved. Last year, Kelly reported, 139 consumer complaints were received by the SPCS for investigation. Twenty-one of the 139 complaints related to WDI reports. I was interested to learn that no one knows how many WDI reports are done in a year, and therefore what the actual complaint rate is. We learned that copies of WDIs are not required to be submitted to the department or any state agency. Also, the number of complaints may be an underestimate, since many disgruntled consumers do not contact the SPCS, but go directly to litigation.
Allison Cuellar, of the SPCS, provided a review of six other state WDI systems. Many states (e.g., Florida, Georgia, New Mexico and Louisiana) have separate license categories for WDI inspectors--Texas only requires WDI inspectors to have a termite license. Arkansas and Florida require the companies who conduct an inspection to provide some form of warranty for their work. Mike Kelly pointed out the need for making more PMPs aware of the existence of the instruction sheet for the Texas official WDI inspection forms. The need for more and better training in WDI inspections was discussed, but no specific recommendations were made. This poses a challenge for agencies like mine to make WDI training available--especially hands-on training. But without a mandate to attend I wonder how many inspectors would voluntarily take it?
Insurance for WDI inspectors also provoked some lively discussion. As I understand it, insurance companies are increasingly requiring their insured to carry both "general liability" policies and something called an "errors and omissions" policy. General liability is insurance coverage for damage a PMP might directly cause to a premise. It is sometimes unclear as to whether GL insurance covers damage that might result from something a PMP misdiagnosed or missed during an inspection. If not, then this sort of loss would be covered by an E&O policy. We were told by home inspector Bob Smith that E&O insurance typically costs a company $600 to $1000 more each year.
Some inspectors blame ambiguous rules, and the SPCS in particular, for not providing more clarity in stating exactly what kind of insurance is required. Personally I can't decide whether this is more of an insurance industry (free market) issue, a problem with the statutory language, or simply a lack of clear communication about what PMPs need by the SPCS. The TDA/SPCS appears to be leaning toward requiring termite companies (and home inspectors) to carry E&O insurance to meet the requirement of the law. The reasoning is that the Texas Occupations Code (part of state law) requires pest control businesses to have insurance that covers "liability for damage to persons or property occurring as a result of operations performed in the course of the business of structural pest control..." (Section 1951.312). If someone misses a pest infestation and damage or loss of value occurs to the home as a result (something that could happen in the course of doing business) many insurance companies require E&O insurance to cover such losses.
I'm a simple entomologist and have trouble keeping track of my home and auto insurance policies. But it seems to me that all PMPs with businesses should have a good heart-to-heart with their insurance agents. Make sure your business is adequately covered.
As the late Ken Myers pointed out in testimony to the committee last year, many PMPs appear to be confused right now as to what sort of coverage they really need. I agree that we need more clarity on this issue.