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Tax plan splits Forest Oaks homeowners

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003

SPRING HILL -- A battle is brewing in Forest Oaks over the civic association's proposal to tax property owners an extra $168 a year to maintain the community's common areas and to hire someone to enforce its deed restrictions.

At the center of the storm is Forest Oaks Civic Association president Rose Rocco, who ran unsuccessfully last fall for a seat on the Hernando County Commission.

Critics of Rocco's current campaign don't like the tax proposal. But they also don't like the fact Rocco is promoting it at a time she's pondering a move outside of Forest Oaks. Rocco wants to run again for the County Commission in 2004. But to do it she'll need a new address in a commission district with a seat on the ballot.

"She's going to screw us up and leave," said Joseph Farina, a Forest Oaks resident. "She dumps it on us and then leaves. Very community-oriented."

Rocco said it's possible she could still keep her property in Forest Oaks -- and thus be subject to the tax -- even if she lives elsewhere. But she says the key issue is not her personal address.

What Rocco and her civic association are proposing for Forest Oaks is a new Municipal Service Benefit Unit tax -- a flat fee charged to residents in a specific area for a purpose that benefits only them.

Rocco says a new MSBU tax for Forest Oaks would stave off the decay that has hit other communities with weak, non-mandatory homeowner's associations. She is convinced the roughly $89,000 a year generated by such a tax could go a long way toward preserving property values.

Specifically, Rocco says, $35,000 would cover the cost of maintaining Forest Oaks' 61/2 acres of common grounds. Another $29,000 would pay for the upkeep of the clubhouse and pool, insurance and taxes.

But the newest twist with this tax -- and there are dozens such taxes in the county for everything ranging from fire protection to street lighting -- is that $25,000 of its annual revenue would pay for a deed restriction manager.

Rocco, who also is on the board of directors of a coalition of local homeowner's groups known as United Communities, says civic associations in places like Forest Oaks -- where residents aren't forced to join -- are seeing their memberships dwindle as original residents die or move out.

Rocco says newcomers are less inclined to pay annual dues, leaving the burden of maintaining common areas and enforcing restrictions against weeds or running businesses from home to fewer and fewer members. In Forest Oaks, less than 10 percent of the 565 property owners are members of the civic association.

But residents like Jan Piper say homes in Forest Oaks are kept up well enough without an enforcer. And the only other reason she sees for joining the civic association -- the use of the clubhouse pool -- means nothing to people who have pools in their back yard. It simply isn't worth it to her to pay the annual dues of $75 per person or $130 per family.

"I don't want my taxes to go up," Piper said of the tax. "I don't want to be paying for a clubhouse that I never use."

Forest Oaks property owners already pay $50 per year for streetlighting. And Farina, a critic of the proposed tax, says Forest Oaks has several residents on fixed incomes who simply can't afford another tax.

As with any new MSBU, Rocco and the civic association must get two-thirds, or 377 of the community's 565 property owners to sign a petition favoring it. Then they will need the approval of the Hernando County Commission.

Farina and Piper are part of a small cadre organizing opposition to the new tax. They have circulated a letter urging residents not to sign the petition. And they are rallying troops to turn out for the civic association's next forum on the subject, scheduled for Feb. 26 at the community clubhouse.

Part of their anger with the proposal is what they perceive as the sneaky way it's been handled up to now.

The first meeting to discuss the subject was seven days before Christmas. Rocco's letter announcing the second one -- on Jan. 22 -- didn't arrive in mailboxes until Jan. 21. She blamed it on the postal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

Farina was not amused: "It's just a damn stinking way to pull off something."

Rocco says support for the proposal is coming from Forest Oaks apartment developer Alex Deeb. Residents in the community still have plenty of time to make known their feelings about the proposed MSBU, she says. As president of the civic association, she says it's merely her duty to put options on the table.

She says the $168 annual cost -- $14 a month, she points out -- is probably a high estimate. With proper bidding for certain services, the amount could be less. Above all else, Rocco says, she wants to preserve the value of property in Forest Oaks.

"What we're trying to do is protect what's here," Rocco said.

-- Times staff writer Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com .

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