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Suburb stews in dues, don'ts

Security Dude, whose real name is Cruz Mejia, kept his job, but the subdivision’s budget woes aren’t over.

MARLENE SOKOL | Times

Security Dude, whose real name is Cruz Mejia, kept his job, but the subdivision’s budget woes aren’t over.

I'm in our clubhouse one Saturday with the security dude, picking up team pictures for our soccer league, when a call comes in.

Go check out this abandoned house.

Security Dude turns off the cell phone and informs me that his job might be eliminated because of a shortfall in homeowner dues.

Once we're gone, who checks on the abandoned houses? he asks.

Indeed.

So I go to the next budget meeting, something I normally wouldn't do for this job because you're crazy to write about your neighbors, right?

But I want to witness, up-close, the deliberation taking place in boardrooms all over suburbia as the foreclosure crisis eats into association budgets.

Do we cut security patrols, or "courtesy patrols,'' as we call them?

If not that, what?

Put the ladies in the front office on furlough, sure poverty for them and a locked door to homeowners with complaints?

Fire the landscape staff, and instead go with temporary crews in summer?

It occurs to me that even in my lower-end Carrollwood neighborhood, we have become accustomed to certain luxuries.

Imagine. People drive around in pick-up trucks (I always called them ice cream trucks), picking up stray dogs and chasing pot smokers out of the park.

Security Dude rescued a child from drowning in our community swimming pool. Another patrol officer wrestled an 8-foot alligator out of someone's yard. I saw pictures!

I don't worry too much about Security Dude, whose real name is Cruz Mejia. He's a resourceful guy, working angles since he moved here years ago from the Dominican Republic.

But what about all those abandoned houses? How many more will go dark before the year is out? Will my neighborhood become a tropical Dodge City?

I imagine the backlash from homeowners who dutifully pay $56 a month for community programs such as soccer and scouting. Who will clean the clubhouse for parties?

It's like this everywhere, to varying degrees.

Rick Pitrowski, president of the Brandon-based Communities of America management firm, estimated recently that homeowner dues are between 12 and 20 percent delinquent. Five years ago, managers could boast of 1 percent delinquencies, or less. If times were tough, they might delay painting a clubhouse or upgrading a playground or planting new flowers.

Now, in their budget meetings, "associations are writing in bad debt,'' he said. "Now they are cutting into the bone.''

Line by line

Seven p.m. Fed the kids from the microwave, deposited the older one at her high school concert and here I sit, surrounded by Security Dude's cheering section.

Seems I'm not the only one who heard about his plight. One by one, a half dozen neighbors sing Mejia's praises. The usual audience size at a budget meeting? Zero, says our president.

On to the discussion.

Even with a 5 percent increase in homeowner dues, the highest they can go without a members' vote, the association faces a $70,000 shortfall.

Line by line, eight board members examine the costs of publishing a newsletter, removing dead trees, maintaining two pools and replacing village signs disemboweled by the neighborhood thugs.

Paint the exterior wall? Nah. Well, maybe that spot on the inside that has never been painted and could start to disintegrate. Maybe with the barrels of paint that we have in storage.

Do we spend $20,000 to treat the lakes for algae? Well, we already signed that contract.

How about the pools? And the dozens of lounge chairs? Do we replace them when they break? Can we, maybe, stash half away during the winter? And if so, where? How about in a handball court, covered with tarp? No, that will look like a pile of trash.

One board member, animated at her own ingenuity, suggests we shut down the pools for a year, communicating to our members that it's a sacrifice we must make.

She is hooted down because come on, who will buy a foreclosed house in a place with its swimming pools boarded up?

And yes, we are talking about foreclosures, lots of them. To date, there are 140 in our community of 1,832. A year from now we are expected to show 170, and that's if things don't get worse. And everybody assumes they will get worse.

So that could be 200 homes looking for dues-paying occupants.

A board member suggests not planting flowers. Same argument. How ugly do we want to look? Instead of planting $4 red poinsettias for Christmas, how about small white ones that cost $1.79? Again, we've got to keep up appearances. How about silk flowers? No, that's against deed restrictions.

Members agree to trim the staff's travel, though the community manager insists he must make a bank deposit every day, not once a week.

They will ask the courtesy officers to make fewer patrol rounds, to save gas.

Now, how to cut postage? The discussion turns to all those deed restriction letters management sends out; good money after bad, you could argue, asking people to pay dues and paint their houses when nobody has money.

Instead of sending these letters out first-class, could we ask the courtesy patrol to hang them on people's door knobs? Another laugh line, like shutting down the pools. There go your fuel savings, and many of the landlords live out of town anyway.

The discussion returns to courtesy patrol, a crew of six part-time and full-time officers that costs roughly $165,000 a year in wages and insurance.

The board president, a law enforcement officer, likes them. They have helped solve crimes, he says. Another board member, also with a law enforcement background, echoes that sentiment.

We're going to have to keep control of what we have, he says.

A half a million jobs will be lost before inauguration. . . . Last weekend, I saw four people move out.

Saving to a surplus

The board finds ways to turn a $70,000 deficit into a $15,000 surplus, through a combination of belt-tightening and optimistic thinking. The electric companies are not raising rates as much as they had projected. Gasoline costs far less than everybody feared.

Security Dude is safe — for now.

The meeting is still going full swing at 9:00. But a new episode of The Office is on and I'm up at 5:30 a.m. to get my child back to high school.

So I drive home, past the medians that could use new flowers, come to think of it, past a courtesy truck. Is that Mejia behind the wheel? It's too dark to say.

Across the street is the pool where my children learned to swim. The deck chairs are lined up, all straight and pretty.

The moon is full. But I'm filled with dread as I walk toward the house.

Marlene Sokol, the St. Petersburg Times' suburban reporter, can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Suburb stews in dues, don'ts 11/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 6:47am]
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