Egad! The year is more than half over! Most of us haven’t even enjoyed our summer vacations yet. I know I have not yet gotten my summer tan to where I want it to be. Most HOAs are just hitting their financial stride this year. And yet, time marches on and budget planning season is upon us. HOA Boards of Directors need to be anticipating the challenge of successful budget preparation because it is going to be a hard budget to properly evolve. My advice is to start the planning, debating, and negotiating now. The pressures of this budget are likely to be unlike any you’ve seen before.
A perfect financial storm brewing has been brewing for some time now. As a generality, the financial woes of our nation really became noticeable in July of 2007. It’s already been years of broad-based economic stress. In my experience of dealing with the financial condition of all sorts of community associations across the country, I have noted a general progression of decisions that have been consistent since July, 2007.
When the 2008 budgets were being plotted, many associations decided to hold their budget level to the prior year. That meant deferring projects that they would have liked to do but felt that holding off one more year would be prudent. As 2008 progressed, layoffs began, financial alarm bells went off, and then came the September “near collapse” of the American financial system. The general response to these traumas was the cancellation of proposed maintenance projects and, in very many cases, operating budgets were cut back. Draconian cost control was the over-riding concern.
Through 2009, many associations experienced operating deficits as delinquencies exploded with real operating costs outpacing what was budgeted. 2010 budgets were constructed with little interest in performing maintenance work on the properties as Boards looked to further cut operating costs.
This trend has continued. Looking at current budget and operating expenses that continue to increase. Many associations are still running real operating deficits from prior year(s) because the “balanced budget” approved for the current year was truly impractical given the fact that true market-driven operating costs are higher. I have watched reserve accounts continually being depleted over the past two years to keep the associations afloat. The limit to these “extreme measures” in budgeting seems to have reached its conclusion.
Operating budgets cannot go into a third year of increasing deficits as costs continue to increase. Deferred maintenance that needed to be addressed in 2007/2008 has been stretched beyond its limit of practicality. By all appearances, community associations are likely and largely about to go into a 3 to 5 year period of strongly increasing budgets or strenuous special assessments.
Prudence would suggest that a responsible Board step forward early to be prepared to propose the budget increases that will be needed. Recognize what the real costs will be for the coming year and plan for those cost increases. For instance, due to world economic pressures, it is likely that oil prices will rise dramatically in the very near term. What will that do to your utility costs? The investment portfolios of insurance companies are stressed. To restore their needed reserve balances, insurance companies are likely to increase premiums. Local and state property taxes will be increasing dramatically in order to halt municipal budget deficits. That will squeeze the profits of vendors so they will need to increase their prices to associations to survive.
Deferred maintenance just cannot go on any longer for many of the common elements. It is becoming common circumstance that municipalities are fining and ordering associations to perform work within a time frame to satisfy life and safety issues. Since there was no money in the budget to repair the roof that was leaking in 2008, today, it is almost raining in the building. Clearly, building’s components need to be addressed and time has run out. The good news is that the cost of construction labor and materials in under control for the time being. The difficult news is that projects have a multi-thousand dollar impact on a per unit basis. Boards are going to have to plan for these projects to be done through combinations of using existing reserves, applying special assessments and seeking external financing.
The end result is that Boards will need to do good research on the line items in their budgets so they can have a real strong handle on what might occur throughout this upcoming year. Having individual line items becoming budget busters is just not going to be workable any longer. Boards need to get contractors to provide cost estimates right away so planning can be made on how these now unavoidable items can be paid for. Getting the new budget approved is going to be a major stress. Unit owners are still reeling from how the economy has affected them.
The best thing that the Board can do to get the new budget approved is to communicate early and communicate well. Present the case clearly with lots of detail. Bring in outside professionals to help explain the importance and benefits of proposed repairs, maintenance, and construction projects. Let the insurance agent explain why the insurance premium might be what is proposed and then show that you have shopped around. In demonstrating the need to get a capital maintenance project done, bring in a panel of experts to do a presentation to the unit owners: engineer, contractor, financing representative.