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Tarpon Springs ready to drop the hammer on condo associations for unpaid water bills

TARPON SPRINGS — For years, two condominium associations here have squabbled.

The neighboring complexes along Lake Tarpon share one water meter. But one association hasn't been paying its portion of the bill, even after the other successfully sued it over the issue.

Now the city of Tarpon Springs, which supplies the water, is left to referee the tiff. And when the delinquent association doesn't pay for its water service, the city has to cover the charges.

The cost of those ignored bills so far: $10,000.

"Obviously, we aren't going to be subsidizing anybody's water bill," said Commissioner Jeff Larsen. "That isn't an acceptable solution."

But a better solution isn't simple. Even after imposing a lien for the unpaid bills, the city can't just turn off the water. That's because the complexes' fire hydrants and fire sprinklers connect to the same water lines.

In Florida, it's a misdemeanor to make fire protection systems inoperable except by court order. On Tuesday, city officials grimly discussed obtaining such an order, hoping to settle the hefty debt while also ensuring the associations stay current on payments.

The shared water bill goes to the condo association for the first phase of the development, Tarpon Highlands at Lake Tarpon Sail and Tennis Club I. It pays part of the bill, proportionate to the 46 units connected to the water meter.

An agreement calls for Tarpon Highlands at Lake Tarpon Sail and Tennis Club II, the second phase of the development, to pay proportionate to its 14 units hooked up to the meter.

Unable to compel Club II to carry its share, Club I appears to have handed that responsibility to the city, officials said. Club I has kept up with its water bill but refuses to shoulder Club II's portion.

"In essence, they said, 'City and the taxpayers of Tarpon Springs, it's on you,' " City Manager Mark LeCouris said.

In 2009, Club I tried to take Club II to court over the lapse in water and sewer payments. Club II was nearly $2,000 behind on those bills, according to a lawsuit filed in Pinellas Circuit Court.

When Club II didn't answer the lawsuit, a judge ordered the association to give Club I more than $7,000 in damages, interest and court costs.

Club II belatedly responded to the complaint, claiming it sent a letter earlier but mistakenly referenced the wrong case number. The association admitted to not paying the expenses but didn't acknowledge the agreement to split the bill.

Court records also show a "master" association that oversaw several phases of the Lake Tarpon Sail and Tennis Club development won a 2010 lawsuit against Club II for unpaid monthly fees.

A reporter's call to the registered agent of the Club II association went unreturned. The association's officers, Aliona and W. Mark Sanders, couldn't be reached.

This time, city officials say they won't allow Club II to stop paying. And they won't allow Club I to let Club II stop paying, either.

"They're forcing our hand," said Mayor David Archie.

The city attorney plans to meet with the associations' attorneys to try to get the condo complexes up to speed on water payments. If Club II doesn't start making good, the city is willing to move forward with cutting off water.

The city will notify condo residents if the problem gets that far. But if the water shuts off, the fire protection systems will be disabled, and residents will have to move out.

"So really," Commissioner Townsend Tarapani mused at Tuesday's meeting, "our only option is match their power play with a power play.

"I like power plays."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com.

Tarpon Springs ready to drop the hammer on condo associations for unpaid water bills 11/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 8, 2012 6:46pm]
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