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East County Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 1 month ago

Lakewood Ranch CDDs aim to keep budgets steady amid inflation

All but one Community Development District saw increases below 2% in residents’ fees.
by: Ian Swaby Staff Writer

If residents of Lakewood Ranch's five Community Development Districts have been worried about seeing their new CDD bills, they might be able to let out a sigh of relief.

Despite rampant inflation throughout the country, the Lakewood Ranch CDDs mostly will see raises on a par with other years.

According to Steve Zielinski, chief financial officer and chief operating officer of the inter-district authority, all Lakewood Ranch CDDs raised their residents' assessments less than 2%, except for District 2, in which assessments rose an average of 5.6%.

Zielinski said over his nearly 15 years with the district, residents' annual assessment increases have averaged approximately 2.9%.

The five Lakewood Ranch CDDs finalized their budgets in August. Responsibilities of CDDs include maintaining roads, managing the irrigation pumping system, managing gate guards and transponders, and providing landscaping for roads.


Reserves keep rates down

Board members pointed to substantial reserves in each district as the reason for low budget increases.

“Those reserves come in very handy for us,” CDD4 Chair Mike Griffin said.

Vice Chair Keith Davey and Chair Michael Griffin attend an Aug. 17 board meeting in which the budget was approved. (Photo by Ian Swaby)

Griffin said originally, the districts did not maintain these reserves, but with the arrival of Zielinski, the management of the districts changed and became more comprehensive. 

Officials said residents appeared to appreciate the greater predictability these reserves brought to residents' assessments. 

"You want to avoid significant increases from year to year, and you want to have a static uphill climb that's pretty much manageable and not noticeable by the residents,” Zielinski said.

District 6 Chair James Rogoze said residents are most annoyed when they see unexpected raises that they weren't prepared for. He said they have no problem managing their personal budgets when they can base their fees on clear, future expectations.

He said they expect some maintenance is going to cost more to maintain the beauty of the neighborhoods.

“When people buy a home in Lakewood Ranch, they buy with the expectation that the services will be of high quality, and that’s what we try to give them,” Rogoze said.

The reserves are generally meant for emergency costs, and with the price of just about everything on the rise, inflation can be considered an emergency cost.

But now other emergencies tend to cost more.

Rogoze said one incident involved a pump that broke in one of the Country Club’s irrigation ponds, which was intended to feed water into the neighborhood’s sprinklers. He said another pump, which was designed to serve half the community, was able to temporarily fill its role. But the price was $44,000 to replace the pump.

Mike Griffin, the chair of the board for District 4, which manages the Greenbrook area, said last year the district needed to repair sidewalks on Greenbrook Boulevard at the area of The Vista, in both directions. These sidewalks, used by children to walk to school, were consistently flooding. Those unexpected repairs cost about $150,000.

Now that many of the CDDs have gone to reserves to keep the overall fees down, Rogoze knows the CDDs will need to find ways to build those reserves back up. He knows more "emergencies" are on the way.

Whether the CDDs can keep rates down while trying to restock reserves remains to be seen.

“Fortunately, we haven't had to do it yet,” Griffin said of raising fees significantly to the residents. “Quite simply, (inflation) is something we’ll have to deal with; I think we’re dealing with it right now.”

While he declined to estimate future costs, calling them too speculative, he said he is nonetheless optimistic that reserves already in place will provide a cushion that prevents sudden and dramatic increases in residents’ assessment rates. 

“That’s the whole idea behind the reserves,” he said. “If something happens, we have a way to fix it; a soft landing, so to speak."


Roads, labor costs up

Officials still cited roads and increasing salaries as major costs being driven up even farther by inflation.

Zielinski said the CDDs spend more than a half a million dollars annually in road maintenance. He called the rise in costs of road projects “astronomical.”

He said currently roads are funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, something the IDA is working to maintain. He said if these projects instead had to be funded through bonding, this would mean residents’ fees would reflect principal and interest payments on the bonds.

“That's what we're trying to avoid,” he said.

The need to hire staff was also cited by multiple members.

Alan Roth, the board chair for District 1, said all the CDDs are having a hard time keeping manpower where it needs to be.

While residents have noted their appreciation for keeping the CDD increases to a minimum, they also deliver pressure to make sure everything looks the way it did 15 years ago.

“All of a sudden, they see this growth and maturity,” Zielinski said. “We’re trying to make it as new as we possibly can and avoid being dated.”

Roth said many residents are not thrilled with aging of landscapes.

He said problems include increasing amounts of weeds, flowers that are not maintained as they used to be, and thinning shrubbery.

“We’re going to have to solve that somehow, and it's our job to figure out how to do that with the minimum financial impact,” Roth said. “There's very few things that are more important than landscape.”

Zielinski also noted the parks are valuable assets to the community, and that the IDA is trying to ensure it has “sufficient provisions” to beautify them.


The exception

The only district which saw greater than 2% increases in residents' assessments was District 2, which oversees the southern areas of Country Club, as well as the Edgewater community, with a reach concentrated mainly south of The Masters Avenue.

Zielinski said residents' assessments in District 2 rose roughly 5.6%.

He also called District 2 a complex and challenging area to cover, stating it is among the older communities in the area, which makes maintaining infrastructure more problematic.

He said the other major contributing factor was the IDA's responsibility for roads in that district; the IDA manages roads in districts 2, 5, and 6, while the county bears responsibility in districts 1 and 4.

Peter Bokach, the board chair for District 2, said reasons for the increase included expansion of road reserves and increased funds for storm drains. He said during COVID-19, the district had backed off of maintenance of storm drains.

Nonetheless, Bokach and Zielinski both said they were satisfied with the results of the budgeting process.

Bokach said he was glad to see reductions in costs in certain areas in which the district had taken initiatives, including the remote guard house system and irrigation. He said initiatives in soil moisture sensor systems, which cut off irrigation when sufficient moisture is detected in the ground, had enhanced control of water usage.

“Even with District 2 being a little overburdened compared to other districts this year, it still has come in within, I think, the expectations of the service level we're looking to provide for the residents within this community, at a reasonable price point," said Zielinski.


Residents speak

Residents of Lakewood Ranch interviewed were generally satisfied with the level of services and amenities compared to their CDD assessments, while others said their expectations were not being met. 

Summerfield and District 1 resident Fernando Marines said the neighborhood's services are good in general.

 "You always want it to be lower; of course," he said of CDD fees. "I would need to know what it would be used for when it is raised," he said. "But the facilities are good and well-maintained."

Riverwalk's Pamela Bender, who lives in CDD 1, said she loves the amenities and believes everything is beautiful.

Her husband, Matt Bender, said the couple have not paid attention to what the fees, as they do not find them notable.

 "You're not going to convince me the taxes are high," he said. "We wouldn't even know what the fee is, but it wouldn't be higher than what we were paying in Illinois. It would seem like child's play compared to that."

Brandon Lambiris, a resident of Edgewater and District 2 who recently moved to the area, said his impression was that it offered "one of the more reasonable" costs to residents in Lakewood Ranch. He said currently, services that include landscaping are satisfying. 

Robert Heck, who lives in the same district, said the fees are definitely too high. He also said the manner in which residents were billed did not adequately account for actual spending on water.

"Put a meter on everyone's house," he said.

Country Club and District 2 residents Moury and Amy Hill, who have long been caring for a home in the area of Lakewood Ranch Country Club, said they are happy with the area's services.

Nonetheless, Amy Hill said the community “could use some updating” and that she would not be upset if costs to residents were raised in the name of creating improvements.

“Roofs need to be cleaned, gutters need to be cleaned, and the clubhouse looks too 1990s,” she said.

Greenbrook and District 4 resident Tim Spranger said, regarding his district's 1.02% increase in fees, "I don't think there's any reason for it to go up with the amount of people who live here. I'm not too happy, but at the same time, I'm not going to lose sleep over it."

He said he felt the services the community was receiving were mediocre compared to the cost.

"He said there are too many potholes along Greenbrook Boulevard.

"Perhaps it's the Florida of weather but they need to keep up more with that."

He also said the grasses of the parks contained too many anthills and needed to be cleaned up.

Greenbrook and District 4 resident Norman Collins said, generally speaking, the fees were worth the cost.

"Everything is nice and new and beautiful," he said. "The protection of the investment, the home values, makes it worth it."

Country Club and District 6 resident Leonard Goodkin said he does not spend much time thinking about his current property taxes, which he said are low compared to those in New Jersey and New York, where he had previously lived.

"The quality of life here is great," he said. "There's nothing that I would complain about."

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