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March 01, 2008

Speaking of: What’s so Special About Assessments?

Shelley Williamson

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Before joining my condo board several months ago I had often heard the word assessment bandied about over the years and thought very little of it. Unfor-tunately now I am becoming all too familiar with plenty of terms I dreaded would come up regarding the place, much less make me the heavy responsible for enforcing them.

Special assessment. Sounds like an opinion one might wait hours at a doctor’s office reading old Macleans magazines to procure from a specialist. I wish. Actually it can be much worse. I have heard it referred to as “a scourge that arises without notice and hits like a falling tree.” Yikes.

A special assessment is a fee, often suddenly levied on everyone who owns in a condominium complex or corporation, to pay as a group for something that needs addressing, like a repair. In our case it’s a roof that should have been fixed or replaced years ago and now—in the face of labour shortages and rising costs, and an astronomical spike, apparently, in the price of shingles—needs immediate attention.

Just one of the little surprises my fellow board members and I inherited from earlier boards and the former manage­ment company. Let’s put it this way: the shingles are the originals and the complex is now getting into its mid-30s. If our roof were a single person, its family and friends would be getting worried about him or her getting up there in years.

I have heard the horror stories about special assessments. Our condo’s manage­ment company is even dealing with a case at the moment where, in a similar situation to ours, the board inherited a series of problems, thanks to years of its predecessors not caring about the future. Only theirs is much, much worse—and I suspect has far fewer owners to shoulder the financial burden. They are looking at $20,000 apiece. That was more than what my husband and I scraped together for a down payment to buy the condo in the first place. So, by contrast the $40,000 we have proposed to make up the difference between what was allotted in a reserve fund study a few years back to repair the roof and what it now actually costs (I am told shingles have tripled in price since then, not to mention labour), is a much easier amount to accept. I hope my fellow owners see it that way.

I know what will be raised is the fact condo fees have gone up for the third year in a row, and until I joined the board, I may have been right alongside those protesting the board’s decision. But, assuming at least some of my fellow owners are, like my husband and I, hoping this will just be a stepping stone leading us to our next home, perhaps with a yard of our own one day—which requires us to sell—one can hope they see reason. The market is changing and, no matter what improvements we make past our front door in attempts to sell our place, the exterior quite honestly is an eyesore that may prevent potential buyers even getting out of the car—and that includes the roof.

When you look at it, $40,000 between 141 units is around $240, which, when broken down over a year is less than $24 a month. That’s less than a Tim Hortons a day (not even including weekends). Not that I am suggesting we take away people’s coffee; then they would really have a right to get steamed.

The fact is, like it or not, in Alberta condo boards have the right and power to call for special assessments and owners are not really given a chance to vote on it. That’s why, as a condo owner, it’s important to take an interest in the running of your condo corporation and to elect board members that are looking out for the best interest of owners as a whole and are not, as some owners may be under the misconcep­tion, just on a power trip.

Owners do have some recourse, though, in that they can bring our policies up in writing at the annual general meeting, but for that to happen they would have to show up. Judging by the low turnout at the two AGMs I have attended (less than 15 per cent of owners), I can’t see that happening. Maybe if, as a board, we keep being proactive, taking care of long overdue repairs and possibly even improvements, that might change.

I read once that bringing up special assessments with owners is often received not unlike the five stages of grieving, beginning with denial. Often owners react by thinking the board members are idiots looking for a money grab or otherwise don’t know what they are talking about. The fact is we (like most boards, I imagine) really don’t want to ask for the money and more than people want to pay it, but we were elected to run things with everyone’s best interests in mind.

Of course, anger (and a desire to sue) has been mentioned as the next stage, followed by bargaining (can we defer this to another year?), then depression (this is often the point where calls for a new board happen), and finally acceptance.

Let’s hope we reach acceptance and still manage to keep our board posts.

Only time will tell. 

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