Local taxing districts: politics' real grass roots

If all politics is local, then the politics of your taxing district is really, really local.

COURTESY : St. Petersburg Times
Published October 24, 2004

The governing boards of local community development districts oversee large sums of money collected from hundreds of households in their subdivisions. They decide how exactly to spend their neighbors' money on bread-and-butter expenses such as security patrols and maintaining common areas.

On Nov. 2, neighbors in three local subdivisions - Cheval in Lutz, Heritage Isles in New Tampa, and Twelve Oaks in Town 'N Country - will be picking new board members.


In recent months, the Cheval West homeowners association has cited Mary Castro for a fence out of code, patio furniture on the lawn, deteriorating stucco, a bag of salt atop the water softener and the need for bushes to hide the water softener. When Castro planted shrubs, she was cited for having insufficiently small shrubs.

"It appears somebody was looking for things to be wrong at my house," said Castro, 57, a sales associate at the Citrus Park Dillard's.

So Castro is running for the board of the Cheval West Community Development District to impart reasonableness there.

She is opposed by Nathan Whitaker, a 35-year-old lawyer who spent three years helping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers negotiate contracts before he became the victim of a management purge in January. Whitaker is writing a book about leadership.

But with new spare time, he decided to help his community.

"I think we need to listen carefully," he said of the CDD board. "But we have to understand that we all bought into the fact that these are deed restrictions."

Officially, the supervisors of Cheval's Community Development District have nothing to do with the deed restrictions. The CDD maintains Cheval West's infrastructure; deed restrictions are enforced by the Cheval West Community Association. But since the 2000 elections, the two boards have been coordinating appointments. So an election to the CDD next week will constitute an election to the Community Association, too.

Castro moved to Cheval East in 1991, one of the earliest residents there. She moved to Cheval West in 2002.

Whitaker has lived in Cheval since 2000, when the Bucs hired him away from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Heritage Isles

For the first time since U.S. Homes broke ground in this modestly priced golf course community six years ago, residents will elect a homeowner to the five-member governing board.

And not a moment too soon for a community of about 1,500 homes that is fretting about security, gates, bumpy roads and a growing debt.

Jack Meehan, a 63-year-old insurance agent, is running for a seat on the CDD board against James "Tony" Rodriguez, a 39-year-old civil engineer. The winner will join Stephen Stark, another homeowner appointed by the developer-controlled board last year after residents complained they had no voice in decisions. Stark faces no opposition for that seat.

Board members oversee a general budget of $622,918 that pays for things like security and landscaping and is financed by homeowner fees. Members also oversee three separate debt service funds of about $11-million in outstanding bonds that finance the community's infrastructure. They are paid $200 to attend a meeting, about six times a year.

Lennar Homes bought the subdivision from U.S. Homes, and will continue to control the majority of votes on the CDD board, even after the election. Florida law allows developers to control CDD boards until most of the lots in a subdivision have been built. About 400 lots have yet to be built in Heritage Isles.

Over the last couple of years, homeowners have complained about several issues in this gated community, chiefly the gates themselves. Lennar markets Heritage Isles as if it's a private community. But the gates can't keep out strangers because the roads are public.

"We were sold a bill of goods that we had a gated community," Rodriguez said. Both he and Meehan think the subdivision can work out a compromise with Tampa to make it harder for unauthorized cars to enter the community.

The biggest problem facing the community is a growing deficit owed to Lennar. When U.S. Homes secured financing to build the golf course and clubhouse, its business plan made the questionable conclusion that money raised from golfers and a restaurant would pay off the bond debt.

As of this year, that projection was off by $4.7-million, double from last year. Lennar loaned the district money to avoid defaulting on the bonds. Technically, the shortfall must be made up by residents, many of whom didn't know about the deficit when they bought their home.

A small group of residents are working with Lennar to resolve the issue. Lennar employees say they're cooperating with homeowners and want a fair solution. Still, when a board member resigned this summer, creating an opening, Lennar employees voted against a homeowner in favor of a representative from U.S. Homes, which still builds units in Heritage Isles. That vote ensured residents wouldn't have a majority on the board for another two years.

Still, Meehan and Rodriguez say they're eager to get on the board and fight for homeowners.

Meehan said concerns about the debt are overblown, and that the restaurant is open longer now and will make more money.

Rodriguez said the deficit is one of the reasons he decided to run.

"That $4-million in debt is huge, it can double our fees," he said. "And right now, the board is making decisions in the interest of the developer, not the homeowner."

Twelve Oaks

As communities go, the Town 'N Country neighborhood of Twelve Oaks is a bit of an anomaly. That's because there are more than enough people willing to serve on its nine-member special taxing district, often a thankless job.

In fact, voters this year will be asked to eliminate two candidates from a field of 11.

"Only if we have more than nine people running do we have an election," said candidate Stuart Revis. "The last election was in 1997."

Members of the Twelve Oaks Special Taxing District, who come up for re-election every two years, collect about $100,000 a year from the community's roughly 950 households. They oversee how that money is spent on upkeep of common areas, a security patrol, and algae control in retention ponds.

Some candidates are happy with the status quo and want to make sure future boards continue along the same lines.

Not David Tinkey, a 71-year-old retired engineer. "Sometimes people in charge go overboard and don't think out projects to the full extent," Tinkey said. For instance, "we put up new entrance sings and two years later tore them down and put up more expensive ones."

And Revis, a 79-year-old retired insurance adjustor, takes issue with spending about $4,000 a year on algae control.

"Why should all the people pay for the primary benefit of 40 people who own waterfront property?" Revis asks.

Rupert Smith, 78 and a retired civil engineer, is fine with the current policies. He's running to help "make this a good community and keep it maintained and up to date."

Incumbent John Schwanebeck, a 63-year-old architect, wants to help keep Twelve Oaks a desirable place to live.

"We're trying to maintain the neighborhood in good shape and want to improve as we go along," Schwanebeck said.

A spirit of volunteerism motivates some, such as candidates Armin Wendt and Rosemarie Middleton.

"I'm an immigrant, and part of the American way of life is to take initiative to improve ourselves," said Wendt, 65.

Middleton, a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher, wants to make a difference in her community. "Hopefully, I have done that in the last four years since retirement," she said.

Sondra Wojkowski, 47, said she attempted to withdraw her name from the ballot but was told by the elections office that it was too late.

Candidates Deanne Schmidt Amaro, Robert Pete Edwards, James M. Fenimore and Eric Nathan Yates couldn't be reached for comment.