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Bill comes, house may go while he's deployed
Bernie Haithcock says it's hard to track his homeowners fee. The neighborhood association is eyeing foreclosure.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published November 12, 2004
TAMPA - Three and a half years ago, Bernie Haithcock paid nearly $100,000 for a 1,500-square-foot home in the Villages of Lake St. Charles, a Riverview community.
The Air Force reservist, an electrician at MacDill Air Force Base, fit right in. About half of the 216 families who live in the Villages come from a military background.
But soon after he settled in, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened. Haithcock was moved to active duty and has been deployed ever since, with his primary assignment at Robins Air Force Base, south of Macon, Ga.
Now Haithcock, 42, faces the prospect of losing his house because he failed to pay his annual $200 homeowners association fee on time.
In June, six months after the fee was due, the Villages association put a lien against Haithcock's home. Association leaders say he now owes more than $1,400 - the $200 fee, a $105 late fee and more than $1,100 in attorney costs.
If he doesn't pay up soon, association vice president Kate Cockerill said Thursday, "we will have to consider foreclosure."
Annual fees are part of owning a home in the Villages, Cockerill said, and, deployed or not, Haithcock needs to take care of his finances.
"My husband's in Iraq right now," she said. "And we've paid our dues."
Haithcock maintains that he was hundreds of miles away when the notice to pay the fee arrived in his Riverview mailbox in January. He said his mind has been on other things, including his assignment overseeing the security alarm division at Robins.
Haithcock doesn't have his mail forwarded to Georgia because his duties require him to travel to other bases frequently. His neighbors save his mail for him, and he comes home periodically to get caught up on his correspondence, he said.
"I worked hard for that house," Haithcock said Thursday from Georgia. "And there is no wife to get the mail when I'm gone. There's only me, and when I'm deployed, my mind is on the mission."
Seeking to settle the matter, he recently offered through his attorney to pay the association $616 - the annual fee plus a $100 late fee and about $300 to cover attorney costs.
"They refused," said Haithcock's attorney, Kenneth Grace of Tampa. Grace is an Air Force veteran himself. He said he usually represents homeowners associations with grievances against residents like Haithcock.
"I have dealt with these cases from the other side, and $300 is a reasonable legal fee," Grace said. "We're not going to pay unreasonable attorneys fees, which is what they're asking."
The association attorney, Elizabeth Frau of Meirose & Friscia in Tampa, was not in her office Thursday. But Cockerill said the association has tried to work with Haithcock. She notes that the association didn't put a lien on the home until June, six months after his annual fee was due.
"Our whole (homeowners association) board is from a military background," she said. "So it's not like we aren't understanding of that lifestyle."
This is the first year the association has filed liens against residents' homes, she said. And Haithcock isn't the only resident facing the specter of foreclosure.
"We're having problems with people paying their dues," Cockerill said.
The association uses the fees to maintain the community's amenities, like landscaping and recreational facilities. When residents buy into a community like the Villages, they agree to pay such fees and to adhere to rules about things such as the appearance of lawns.
If the rules aren't followed, it's within the association's power to file a lien and pursue foreclosure - even if it's over a fee as small as $200.
"I agree the HOAs need this assessment money to operate, and they need to be paid," said Grace, Haithcock's attorney. "But when I saw the bill against my client had crept up to $700, then $800, then $1,100, and now more than $1,400, I just thought it was unconscionable. I know from my own experience how being on active duty can really disrupt your life."
County records show this isn't Haithcock's first instance of financial problems related to his deployment. In October, the county water department put a lien on his home after he failed to pay a water bill. He said Thursday he has since taken care of that outstanding payment. "When I got deployed the last time there was a bill for $98, and I didn't have time to take care of it before I left," he said.
He concedes he needs to pay his bills on time, but wishes the association would be more understanding of his circumstances - and his efforts to take care of his debt.
"You don't have a man that's saying, I'm not going to pay it," he said. "And it's not like I've been sitting home watching Sunday night football, just ignoring the bills piling up. I've been defending my country."