Liens for unpaid homeowners’ association dues cause flap

Article Courtesy of The Belleair Bee

October 5, 2006


PINELLAS COUNTY – When George Hayes and a neighbor, who wants to remain anonymous, learned that the Harbor Hills Homeowners’ Association had placed liens on their homes for nonpayment of association dues, they couldn’t believe it.

After all, they thought, a court had ruled in 1990 that the association “does not have, nor ever will have, the power to file a claim of liens” against homeowners who don’t pay their dues.

They contacted St. Petersburg attorney Kenneth Afienko and had him write a letter to the association’s Dunedin attorney, Joseph Cianfrone, informing him of the 1990 ruling. Cianfrone promptly replied that the association would withdraw the liens.

But that’s not the end of it for Hayes, a retired Air Force colonel whose lien was for $185 of back dues, plus attorney fees and costs, for a total of $560.04. He wants to see the association abolished.

“This association has no purpose,” Hayes said. “It might have had a purpose in the formative years of this subdivision, but it doesn’t now … I think it’s time they either fold up or start being honest with the membership.”

The association’s president, Joseph Kunz, declined to discuss the association’s side of the story.

“I have nothing to say on that matter,” Kunz said when contacted by phone on Oct. 2.

But Mike McFadden, a Largo attorney who serves on the association’s board and was its vice president, said that the association’s primary purpose is to pay the street lighting bills of the section of Harbor Hills north of McKay Creek that is in an unincorporated area and was not annexed into Largo when the rest of Harbor Hills was, several years ago. The $60 annual dues that members pay, he said, cover those bills, buy insurance to protect the association’s officers and directors against lawsuits and create a reserve for miscellaneous expenses. There is no clubhouse, swimming pool or other amenities to maintain.

For 15 years following the 1990 ruling, McFadden said, the association didn’t file liens against those who didn’t pay their dues. The dues of those who paid subsidized the few who refused to pay, and the association hoped to collect when the house was sold or the homeowner died. But, under new leadership, it recently again started levying liens.

“The homeowners association kept the news of that 1990 court decision from the members so it could collect dues, using the threat of liens if they were not paid, and I don’t think that’s right,” Hayes said. “They finally filed some liens and they got it thrown right back in their faces.”

McFadden said that Cianfrone, the association’s lawyer, feels that the 1990 ruling doesn’t support Hayes’ position as much as Hayes thinks it does. McFadden explained that Florida law prohibits the filing of liens against homestead property except in a few certain instances where it is allowed by statute, or unless the homeowner signs a mortgage or other contract agreeing to let liens be filed.

He added that several years ago Hayes and most other Harbor Hills residents signed a petition connected with the formation of the association that gave the association the right to file liens against the signatories’ homes. Hayes admits that he and his late wife signed the petition, but says there was nothing in it about liens, just a catch-all phrase granting the association unspecified powers other than those specifically enumerated. McFadden contends that the 1990 ruling applies only to those owners of homestead property who did not sign the petition.

McFadden said, however, that to avoid the costs of litigation the association will reinstate the policy of not filing liens on the homes of people who don’t pay their dues. He said that most residents don’t mind paying the dues, even if that means subsidizing a few of their neighbors who won’t pay.

“Most people feel that this is a neighborhood and we’re in it for the common good,” he said. “To me, the dues are such a drop in the bucket that they’re not worth making an issue over, but Mr. Hayes feels differently. And if he convinces enough people (to stop paying their association dues,) we’ll have to revisit the issue.”

The options, he said, include asking the county to declare the unincorporated portion of Harbor Hills a street lighting district and having everyone’s pro rata share of the street lighting bill on their annual property tax bill, whereupon the association would either be abolished or changed into a voluntary social organization. As a last resort, McFadden said, the street lights could be eliminated, leaving Harbor Hills in the dark.