Janssen's home foreclosure echoes earlier financial problems

Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen and her husband are now trying to sell their renovated home on Treasure Island.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen and her husband are now trying to sell their renovated home on Treasure Island.

In 2008, as she took over a district with a $1.5 billion budget, Pinellas County's new school superintendent Julie Janssen said she had long since recovered from the money troubles that led to bankruptcy in the mid 1990s.

But once again Janssen and her husband, Dennis, are in financial straits — Wachovia Mortgage Corp. has started to foreclose on their lavishly renovated Treasure Island home on Boca Ciega Bay.

In a complaint filed Jan. 26, Wachovia says the Janssens have not made a payment since July on the $1.33 million loan they obtained when they refinanced at the peak of the real estate boom in 2007.

The two-story, 3,800-square-foot house is on the market for $1.45 million.

Janssen, who makes $200,000 a year, said Thursday that she and her husband are "at the point of going through a divorce'' and would agree to a short sale even though they would get less than what they owe.

But Janssen denied that the house is in foreclosure. She faxed the St. Petersburg Times a Jan. 7 letter showing that Wells Fargo, which services the loan, approved a trial modification that Janssen said included a reduced payment and interest rate. They made the first payment of $9,282, due Feb. 1, she said.

Although the letter said Wells Fargo would tell its lawyer to suspend the foreclosure once the initial payment was received, the case was still active as of Thursday, records show.

Pinellas School Board members withheld judgment, saying they didn't know enough about the cause of the Janssens' money trouble and have seen no indication it is affecting her management of district funds.

But public records show the couple have often been stretched financially.

Dennis M. Janssen, a lawyer, and his wife, then a Pinellas school administrator, declared bankruptcy in 1996 and had their debts discharged that year.

In December 2001, they bought the Treasure Island house for $620,000, taking out two mortgages totalling $558,000.

The same month, they paid $53,000 for a condominium in Tallahassee, where Dennis Janssen graduated from Florida State University.

In 2002, 2003 and 2004 the Janssens failed to pay property taxes on the condo by the March 31 deadline. The Leon County Tax Collector's Office sold the debt in the form of tax certificates, which the Janssens redeemed by paying the taxes plus interest.

In 2003, the Internal Revenue Service filed a $244,239 tax lien against the couple for taxes dating back to 1999. The lien was released in 2005, about the time the Janssens refinanced their Treasure Island home for $812,626.

The couple refinanced again in 2007, this time for $1.33 million. They embarked on an extensive renovation that included three separate structural additions as well as a new roof, boat lift, spa and hot tub, records show.

On Jan. 15, about two weeks before the bank began foreclosing, the Janssens put the house up for sale.

"Attention to detail is everywhere, from the fabulous gourmet kitchen to the beautifully appointed pool & spa area,'' the listing says.

"A dream come true awaits the gourmet chef in a kitchen outfitted w/top of the line commercial grade appliances including Sub Zero refrigerator/freezer, Wolf gas cook top & double oven, Miele Coffee system . . . granite & rich Italian wood cabinets.''

The Pinellas property appraiser's website puts the home's market value at $724,970, a figure that is usually lower than what the property would actually sell for. However, only one house in the area has sold in the past year for more than the Janssen's $1.45 million asking price and that was on a bigger lot.

Janssen said there had "been issues in my personal life for a long time'' that are leading to divorce.

But, she said, "I've kept my private life totally separate from my public life so I could continue to do my job.''

School Board members were reserved in their comments.

"Obviously it draws attention . . . when something like this happens,'' said member Lew Williams. "But I would need to know more about the cause."

"Without information really about what's going on in their personal lives, I can't comment on the Janssens' finances nor do I want to," member Peggy O'Shea said.

Board members also said Janssen's personal financial problems have not intruded on district affairs.

"I have confidence in her part in the district's finances. . . . I don't believe one thing impacts the other. There's absolutely no evidence that has occurred in any way,'' said member Linda Lerner.

Janet Clark, Janssen's strongest critic on the board, has accused the district of being top heavy with administrators. But she said that was "more of a philosophical difference" with Janssen and others, not a reflection of how well Janssen stewards the district's finances.

"I don't think any concerns I have about the budget are because of Julie's management of it," she said.

Finances are very much at the forefront of the school district's concerns. Because of declining enrollment and anemic state funding, Pinellas has cut $120 million over the last five years and expects to cut at least $35 million more next year.

Many officials besides Janssen play a role in overseeing the budget, among them board members and the district's finance team.

"There's checks and balances," O'Shea said. "It's not like she's writing the checks whenever she wants."

Times staff writer Piper Castillo contributed to this report.

Janssen's home foreclosure echoes earlier financial problems 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 12:19am]

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