Official knee-deep in debt

The elections chief has a new condo, and a new, um ... home.

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007

TAMPA -- Already facing the challenges of a lengthy 2008 presidential ballot, the retooling of his office's voting system and his own re-election campaign, Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson has chosen this year to revamp entirely his finances and his living arrangements.

In the last eight months, he has sold the Plant City home he built in 2006, purchased a luxury high-rise condo in downtown Sarasota and created a corporation which bought and platted a six-lot, 19.98-acre tract where he says he intends to move.

The new purchases have saddled Johnson with debt totaling $1.32-million, about 10 times the $131,878 annual salary he draws as elections supervisor.

For all the spending, Johnson's moves have set back his living conditions.

He is moving out of the comfortable three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,949-square-foot home he had built in Plant City last year. After he finishes some painting and fixup, he will be moving into a dilapidated, 884-square-foot frame home at the end of a dirt road.

As for the luxury condo in Sarasota, he says he won't be using it, even for a weekend retreat. He says he has it leased out -- even though he signed an agreement with his lender that prohibits him from doing that. Johnson signed for two mortgage loans to purchase the $476,800 condo in December.

His 13th-floor unit is one of the more inexpensive of the 92 condos at Rivo at Ringling in downtown Sarasota. Eight units, some priced at $1.58-million, remain unsold in the 15-story complex at 1771 Ringling Blvd.

Johnson paid 5 percent down and signed for loans of $381,396 and $71,511.

He told the St. Petersburg Times he can handle the debt on the condo because of the lease he has on the unit. But that rental agreement may violate an agreement Johnson had with his mortgage lender.

An addendum Johnson signed when taking out his condo loans states that he would "only use the property as a second home," and that the condo would not be used as a rental or time-share unit. The addendum says that the borrower "shall be in default" if he makes any false or misleading representations about use of the condo as a second home during the application process.

After the Times asked Johnson about the provision, he said he would ask the lender about it. He said Friday he had not heard back. He declined to identify the party leasing his condo.

Three months after buying the condo, Johnson signed for two more loans to buy a 19.98-acre, oak-shrouded tract in eastern Hillsborough for $800,000. At the back of this tract is the small frame house, built decades ago, that Johnson says will become his new address.

The process began in late February, when Johnson incorporated a limited liability company called Fort Bully East, a name he said was drawn from a historical reference for a western section of Plant City. Johnson, the only officer of the company, listed its address as 505 E Jackson St., a downtown office belonging to his personal accountant.

Johnson's company purchased the tract from Cecil and Nita Bass, friends of the Johnson family who lived next to the property and agreed to sell after being approached by Johnson. Nita Bass, 75, said the property had been in her family since the Great Depression.

No plans to develop the land

The couple, now retired to Lake Wales, loaned Fort Bully East $520,000, and Johnson's company got another $400,000 loan from Sunshine State Savings in Plant City -- a total of $920,000 for the $800,000 purchase.

"How he borrowed that much is a good question," said Mrs. Bass. "The market has hit bottom, and that's a concern for us. But the payments have been coming in."

Johnson said he was able to borrow more than the purchase price because the Bass couple offered to hold a large second mortgage that would provide them a healthy retirement income.

"We're getting 6.75 percent on the loan to him," said Mrs. Bass. "If you put that money in the bank you'd only get 2 or 3 percent."

In July, Johnson had the property surveyed and then filed a plat of the tract showing its name as Oak Creek Estates and delineating a subdivision of six lots, ranging from 2.5 acres to 5.2 acres.

But Johnson said the survey, the plat and the subdividing do not suggest he plans to launch any development business with Oak Creek Estates. Instead, all he plans to do is move into the small home at the back of the parcel. He said $1,000 worth of cleanup and paint ought to make the place habitable.

"I am not in the development business nor am I moving into the development business," Johnson said in a written response to questions from the Times. "My full-time job is the supervisor of elections and as such my priority and focus is on the successful implementation of the election systems transition and full schedule of elections in 2008."

If Johnson seems sensitive about the development question, it may be because he caught some flak last year from Taking Back Hillsborough, a citizens group whose leaders accused Johnson of ignoring them while he was busy with a different extracurricular activity -- selling off blocks of restaurant stock.

The citizens group, seeking to put a county mayor initiative on the 2006 ballot, said Johnson ignored requests for a ballot-gathering extension during a 10-day period in which Johnson was selling stock options for a before-expense profit of $64,032. He said the stock trading had "absolutely no impact" on his elections duties.

Though Johnson said he won't develop the Oak Creek Estates tract, he does think it could become a family neighborhood.

"I plan to make the property my homestead," he said. "Work on the house has begun. It would be nice if one day my three kids build houses on the other lots."

Johnson will need the address deep in the woods off Thonotosassa Road for political reasons.

He has filed papers to seek the elections supervisor's job again in 2008, but will need to maintain a Hillsborough residence to qualify for another four years in office. Constitutional officers must live in their county of election at the time they assume office, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Mrs. Bass laughed when she talked of Johnson moving into the small house at the back of Fort Bully East's new property. The home is surrounded by knee-high weeds. It is without air conditioning. The last tenant paid rent of just $125 a week.

"When he said he'd move in there," Mrs. Bass said, "I said, I'll have to see that before I believe it."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422.