It’s Time to Start Thinking About the Annual Budget

https://www.hoalendingxchange.comEgad! 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.

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Downfalls of Deferred Maintenance

https://www.hoalendingxchange.comA euphemism that is far too overused in the community association industry is deferred maintenance. Deferred maintenance is nothing more than an admission by the governing body and home owners of a common interest community that a failure to accept the known expense of proper maintenance has been caused, tolerated, or otherwise not addressed by the governing body responsible for seeing to it that those funds are collected and spent for proper maintenance of the community’s common elements. This includes the home owners’ acceptance of the budgets put before them that allow for properly timed maintenance.

In best case scenarios, deferred maintenance leads to special assessments and/or increased common fees for current and future owners as they pay back loans and begin properly funding future maintenance projects. In worst case scenarios, deferred maintenance leads to disaster, not unlike the deck collapse witnessed just outside of New Albany, Indiana just a few years ago. Such events should be a wake-up call to all governing bodies of common interest communities.

The argument in favor of deferred maintenance is a simple one. Communities that wish to keep their common fees artificially low really only have one option to do so; that is to not properly set aside money each month for future maintenance. Other expenses happen no matter what and have immediate consequences if they are not. Insurance premiums must be paid or the property goes uninsured. Common utilities must be paid or the lights go out and the water dries up. Management fees must be paid or the community is left unmanaged. The only item that is easily removed from the budget is future maintenance. There is no monthly bill for it and there is no immediate penalty for not collecting it. Only when the signs of deferred maintenance appear does the governing body have to defend its actions. Typically the repair is dismissed with a simple statement of “there isn’t enough money in the budget to repair that item this year”. This is the falsehood that compounds itself and turns the sweetness of lower common fees into the bitterness of deferred maintenance.

The argument against deferred maintenance is far more convincing. One needs only to look at the facts to draw this conclusion. Planned maintenance comes with a planned budget. From the moment a common element is introduced into an association it begins the process of aging. Aging common elements will need to be repaired and replaced over time. It isn’t a question of “if” but rather “when”. Many items have known product useful life spans. Roadways, roofs, sidewalks, tennis courts, decks, and many other typical elements will be used and consumed by unit owners from the moment they are installed. This use needs to be paid for by the unit owners who are of record as these common elements are being consumed. That means the dollar amount to replace these items needs to be collected monthly and held in escrow by the association’s governing body so that the money is available when it comes time to replace the aging common element. Every day, a home owner uses a measurable amount of the common elements: roof, siding, driveways, etc.. Every member needs to pay their way as they live in the community.

There can also be significant consequences to taking the path of deferred maintenance. In the Indiana deck collapse case, it is now being argued that the deck should have been replaced by the association as it had exceeded its 10 year usable life span as certified by the installer. While there were no deaths associated with this deck collapse, the association is now on the receiving end of a major lawsuit. How will it justify not having addressed the replacement of this common element after it had outlived its suggested life span? Will deferred maintenance be cited as a reason? Will the courts see this as a reasonable defense or will the association have to replace the deck anyway and also pay for the settlement of the lawsuit? As you can see, deferred maintenance is not a proper way to save money. It often ends up costing so much more.

I encourage all members of governing bodies of community associations across the country to take a good look in the mirror and ask if they are guiding their communities down the path of great financial stewardship. If not, take a look at the facts and make a resolve to address the nightmare of deferred maintenance and to create a fiscal plan that includes a proper funding of upcoming maintenance projects. It may cause community associations to charge their members more each month but the money they are ultimately saving is in the best interest of all involved. It may even be the best way to prevent future tragedies like the deck collapse we have just seen in Indiana.

There are three inescapable truths all associations need to accept. The project will not go away. The project only becomes more expensive as it is put off into the future. There is only one place from which to draw the funds needed and that is the home owners.

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