State's new condo ombudsman finds phone is already ringing


Article Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

By Joe Kollin

Posted 12-10-2004


He doesn't have an office yet or even a business phone number, but already angry condo owners are tracking down Virgil R. Rizzo at his Fort Lauderdale apartment and bending his ear.

"It's been unending. I've been getting calls at home all day long starting at 8 a.m.," said Rizzo, the nation's first condominium ombudsman. "People have legitimate complaints but they, unbelievably, expect me to resolve them immediately."
Appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday, he is responsible for mediating disputes between owners and their boards, educating boards about their jobs, educating owners about their responsibilities and recommending changes to state laws.

Rizzo, a retired doctor and lawyer, said he can't be sure how long it will take to get started, "but we hope to be up and running by the first of the year."

He still needs to get a staff, telephones, offices and a system for dealing with complaints.

Temporarily, he suggests callers leave messages at the Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominiums & Mobile Homes' toll-free number, 800-226-9101.

The law creating the ombudsman, adopted this year, lets him represent the owners of more than 1 million condos. The position is not only new for Florida, but also for the country. The only other state with a similar position is Nevada, but its ombudsman only serves mandatory homeowner association communities.

Although he expects to hire a staff of 15, he isn't sure how many will be attorneys, investigators and support personnel.

"Some of the calls I'm getting have been from attorneys who want to work for me, including some who, surprisingly, work in the [condominium] industry, and other people wanting to volunteer their services and help out," he said.

He isn't even sure about his budget. He will head to Tallahassee on Sunday to spend a few days learning what he can about the office he will run.

"The first thing I'll do is gather information from the department to determine the volume of calls and what they are about, then do an analysis and see what I can do to resolve problems," he said.

Mediating disputes will be only one part of the $65,000-a-year job.

"It's obvious from everything so far that people need more of an education about condos," he said. "Condo associations are corporations and directors need to run them like corporations. We'll also have to educate unit owners, who must learn that they can't just call in, complain about a problem and expect action."

He plans to use his medical experience to guide him in the new position.

"I need to look at it the way a doctor looks at it," he said. "What is the patient's complaint, what is the preliminary diagnosis and what is the treatment. A patient, or owner, comes with a complaint, so an inquiry has to be made, such as how the owner can support the complaint. Then we have to diagnose it. Then comes the most difficult part, how to treat it."