"I haven't seen anybody rejected yet," Mendosa says of the membership process, which is overseen by a committee. "If you come down here from another state, or if you are here on vacation, they'll let you row. If you don't have the initiation fee, they'll spread the payments out over a few months. It's not tough to get in. We want as many people as possible to come and row."
The county argues -- and the Florida Supreme Court agrees -- that no matter how much good work the club does, it is still exclusive. The club pool, for instance, is not open to the general public. A piece of paper taped to one of the clubhouse's glass doors states that the gym is for members only. "It is our position that it is a private club," says Frank Jacobs, a Dade County assistant property appraiser.
Supporters say that even with a tax exemption, the club would have little money to meet its needs. The only source of revenue consists of dues paid by the club's 400 members. (Members over age 30 pay $40 a month. Members between 20 and 30 pay half that. High school students row for free.) A staggered initiation fee structure ranges from $250 to $1000. It doesn't amount to sufficient funding for the club to exist on its own, some members feel. "It's impossible for a club like ours to run without help from the city," says Ernesto Castro, implying that if the taxes are not waived, the club will fold.
Eduardo Rodriguez points out that other clubs throughout the city were able to carry the increased burden. Just to pay the bill, each of the 428 members of the Miami Outboard Club had to chip in an extra $100. Necessary repairs to the club's broken air conditioner were delayed until more money could be raised. "I think it's no fair that you have to pay the rent to the city and on top of that there is taxes," says outboard club commodore Sergio Perez. "But it's the law. You have to obey the law."
The rowing club, leaders of some other clubs argue, has it even easier than most. The rowers only pay $100 in annual rent for the land. The outboard club and the Miami Yacht Club, by contrast, pay at least $13,000 annually in rent, an amount both clubs expect will soon double.
The rowing club's current twenty-year lease will expire with the millennium. The club wants very much to extend the lease another twenty years. If it isn't extended, the boathouse and the pool will be forfeited to the city along with the property. Club treasurer Howard Kosowsky has been told by Rodriguez that the lease will not be renewed if the debt is not erased.
Rodriguez has no desire to enforce the death penalty, but he has no desire to inherit the club's debts, either. "Let's be practical," he says. "If I take the property now, I'm going to have to pay $100,000. That's the reality."
Kosowsky and Rodriguez met this past week, on the day the club's 1994 taxes were due. While Kosowsky admits the club didn't meet the 1994 deadline, it did pay off $14,000 in back taxes, dropping its delinquent balance below the six-figure mark.
"We're making an effort and trying to run a fiscally solvent club," Kosowsky says. "We're working on it and we're trying to do it, but it's a difficult process.