Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You Can Fight City Hall, but...

You can fight City Hall.

You won’t win, but you may at least get some concessions.
I live in what used to be called the Varsity Heights section of Boca Raton in a house built in 1957.
Everyone had septic tanks back then, and because our neighborhood was mostly blue-collar and most of the houses high and dry on the eastern slope of the Boca Ridge, the city put off sewers in our neighborhood until last.
The talking and planning began way back in 2000. In July of 2006 residents were notified of impending assessments and fees, averaging the astronomical sum of $30,000.
There was a great hue and cry duly covered by the Boca Raton News. Hearings were held, residents begged and pleaded, and the city listened. Through various concessions by the city and state, the figure was pared to about $6,000, and the city ultimately made a time payment program possible.
Construction began in 2006 and continued a couple of years in phases. Finally on Oct. 16, 2008 the city decided on a 90-day deadline for residents to hook up to the new system and have their septic tank disabled, all at home owners’ expense.
Everyone has a reason to procrastinate. In my case I was going through a two-year legal battle with my wife over divorce. As part of mediation we were both allowed to live in the house until it was sold.
Meanwhile the deadline loomed. My ex was out of work and I was struggling. We applied for a city/state aid program to help with the hookup, but when they learned the house was up for sale, we were denied.
The divorce became final June 23, 2009. We continued to try to sell the house.
Meanwhile the deadline passed.
I think Boca Raton may have more code enforcement officers than any other department. At least it looks that way when you see all their trucks parked at the community center.
Aggie, our officer, is a nice and courteous woman, just doing her job.
My ex hopes to refinance and buy the house. I hope for her sake and our three daughters that it works, but meanwhile I am staggering under the burden of paying the bills. I am not alone.
I received a letter from the city from the Special Master of the City of Boca Raton that there would be a court hearing at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010 at City Hall. I didn’t know we had a Special Master, but he is Michael J. Gelfand, and he must be a lawyer or a judge because he seemed very calm and fair-minded.
I was the first one there. I recognized Craig High, a friend who lives about a block away, and another guy who told me he lives at the end of my street.
Around eight or ten guys filed in. I recognized them all from the neighborhood. I realized we are all in the same boat. None of us is rich, and some have lost jobs, failing health, nasty divorces and in some cases already in foreclosure.
By luck of the draw, I went first. I felt like James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It was my plan to throw myself at the mercy of the court, so I began a litany of woe that began back in 2004 with a diagnosis of prostate cancer, and subsequent surgery. Then I spoke of marital problems, court battles, divorce and the coup de grace: the closing of my longtime employer, the Boca Raton News.
I told the court I was not trying to evade responsibility, but that I truly didn’t know what was going to happen in the immediate future. So I plead for time to talk to my ex and figure out some kind of plan to come up with the $2,500 to complete the hookup.
The Special Master conferred with a representative from the city and decreed that he would extend the time to apply for a permit to March 8 and to March 29 to get it approved.
The work must be complete and final by July 26, or homeowners face a $100 a day fine.
We bought some time, but not a solution. Some of the guys are in much worse shape than I. When facing seemingly insoluble problems there are three paths you can take: wallow in despair, ignore it completely and hope it will go away, or stand your ground and face whatever is dealt you. When you have nothing more to lose you have nothing left to fear.

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