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College Stash

Just when you start to believe it's every man for himself, some concerned citizen takes action on behalf of his fellow Floridians.

Miami accountant Charles Gomes found out that, unlike other unclaimed property, people contributing to the Florida Prepaid College Program have a finite amount of time to reclaim their unused funds. Gomes thought that custom deserved more public attention than the program's board of directors was willing to give it.

So he got to work.

The first time that any of the prepaid plans will be forfeited is next March. Cross-referencing a list of holders with unclaimed accounts posted on the program's Web site against names in AOL's white pages and state corporate records, Gomes located 500 people and sent letters informing them of their impending loss.

"I just did it as a community service project," Gomes said, "and I'm a little angry, of course."

Why is he angry?

Gomes contacted Gov. Jeb Bush and members of the plan's board to convince them to take on his little community project themselves. They declined.

Some states, such as Maryland, use a forwarding service provided by the Internal Revenue Service to notify people who have funds that are about to be lost to the state. Gomes thinks that Florida should do the same.

"It's beyond me why they wouldn't use the IRS and social security numbers to try and locate these people," he said.

Grandparents who don't inform the parents of a beneficiary about the existence of a plan for whatever reason — divorce or bad relations — can purchase the plans, according to Gomes. Senior citizens may intend to inform their grandchild of the investment when they are college-bound, Gomes said, but may die before that day. In that event, the money languishes without being used or refunded to the purchaser's estate.

The state has more than $800-million in unclaimed assets.

In 1998, Gomes started notifying people on the list of their rights, and he claims that state officials tried to stop him. He says he informed state Comptroller Robert Milligan of the IRS service, but never got a response. He also plans to continue notifying everyone he can, as others get into the act.

One citizen who received a letter from Gomes wrote back that he was the wrong man. However, the citizen had found the right man, using a Web search engine with which Gomes was not familiar. Now Gomes has another resource in his notification arsenal.

If you think you may be owed money from the Florida Prepaid College Program, visit its Web site at www.floridaprepaidcollege.com. If you believe the state should try harder to contact citizens about unclaimed property, write your legislator. Ask why the state isn't taking advantage of the IRS' forwarding service. It could save you a few bucks.

—Rochelle Renford

A Debate Debate

Jan Schneider is likely headed for a hard fall next month. But the Democratic congressional opponent of ex-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is getting in a few jabs before she hits the deck.

A Schneider campaign press release made light of Harris logging more time on national television hawking her new book than debating the issues back in heavily Republican Sarasota.

The Schneider camp quoted an Oct. 9 Harris appearance on Buchanan and Press. The GOP's High Priestess of Recounts left viewers of the MSNBC show with the impression that she had debated "dozens" of times with Schneider, an environmental lawyer.

The cable gabfest's co-host, former California Democratic Party Chairman Bill Press, first softened up Harris with a few snide remarks about our unfortunate electoral inefficiency.

"All right, so you have a totally screwed up election system in Florida," Press told Harris. "And what do we find out just a couple of months ago in the primary? It's still screwed up. You had two years to fix it. Why didn't you?"

"Actually, Bill," Harris answered blithely, "Florida's system, which is really frightening, is one of the best election systems in the nation."

"You've got to be kidding," Press said.

After a commercial break, Press brought up campaign debates: "Your opponent, Jan Schneider, says that you may be having coffees, but you're not having any debates."

"We have been together dozens of times," Harris said.

"In a formal debate setting?" Press asked.

"We've been scheduled maybe eight times, and we have another dozen scheduled."

"Formal debates?"

"Formal forums, debates, whatever they have. Absolutely," replied Harris. "If she wanted to schedule more, we have a lot of issues. That was sort of a press ploy. We're taking our initiative to the people, person to person, not for the press."

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