By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Taimira Perez eases herself onto the navy sofa in the living room of her townhouse in Miramar Gardens, a private residential community of predominantly low-income property owners in the city of Miami Gardens, near the border of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Leaning back wearily, the 41-year-old rubs the back of one hand against her temple as Omar, her seven-year-old son, tugs at her free arm, pleading for money to buy firecrackers from the neighbor two houses down. "Pleeeasse, Mom," the child begs. "Just five bucks." His mother looks up at him with a frown. "Omar, I told you I don't want you setting off any more firecrackers in the front yard," she scolds. Within moments, however, she has relented and reaches down into the brown wallet at her feet. She pulls out a twenty and hands it to him. "Bring me the change," she demands, adding with a smile, "you little monster."
But the source of her fatigue isn't Omar. For a woman who seems to relish thumbing her nose at life's curve balls, Perez has a look of defeat about her today. Just a week earlier, on January 8, the board of directors of her development's homeowners association voted to retain Timberlake Management as the property management company for the 331-unit development for another three years. The same night at the same venue, the HOA board of directors for Vista Verde, a neighboring low-income residential development consisting of 180 townhouses, also voted to renew its own contract with Timberlake, a company that manages more than 30 condo and homeowners associations throughout Miami-Dade. "I'm at the point where I want to forget all this drama," she says.
Three five-inch-thick binders sit atop her coffee table, each filled with scores of documents that detail her six-year crusade to remove Timberlake as the property management company for Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde. For years Perez has questioned the circumstances surrounding Timberlake's 1998 arrival in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde, and she has looked into the financial dealings of Timberlake's owner, Bob Dugger, and his assistant/wife, Rachel, in an effort to discredit the couple. "Rachel has probably put a vodou doll of me inside a boiling pot of water so I can cook, cook, and cook," she says, displaying a gleam of perfect teeth through a grim smile.
A Cuban-American single mother with six kids, Perez accuses the Duggers of mismanaging the finances for both homeowners associations, and of preying on property owners who fall behind on their association fees. As part of her protest, she has refused to pay her $35 monthly association dues since 1998 and is at risk of losing her own home to foreclosure if she and her former husband do not pay more than $6000 in combined association dues and attorney fees to the Miramar Gardens HOA. A defiant Perez says as long as Timberlake remains the management company, she will not pay.
And she believed the tide had finally turned in her favor when Bob Dugger was arrested by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office last November 26; he faces a felony count of official misconduct and seven misdemeanor charges for allegedly lying on his 2002 public financial statement as well as voting on issues in which he had conflicts of interest during his brief tenure as a North Bay Village city commissioner between 2002 and 2003. Dugger, who was subsequently removed from office by Gov. Jeb Bush, pleaded innocent. His trial, originally set for Monday, March 8, has been postponed to June 7. A month before his arrest, and as accusations were mounting, Perez collected enough signatures to hold a recall vote of her association's board since its members had refused to terminate Timberlake's contract. "I haven't had my attorney do anything with the petition, thinking these morons would have fired Timberlake after he got arrested," she says. Indeed her contempt for Timberlake runs so deep, she waited outside the State Attorney's Office in northwest Miami for Dugger to come out in handcuffs the day of his arrest. "Even if he goes to jail, I'm going to keep after him," she vows. "And the day he is set free, I will go after him again."
Perez is not the only homeowner who has refused to pay monthly association dues in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde. When Timberlake began billing the homeowners in 1998, only 70 out of 180 property owners in Vista Verde sent in payments. In Miramar Gardens, fewer than half of the 330 townhouse owners paid their dues. In fact the residents only began paying when they realized they could lose their homes to the associations if they didn't. It took Timberlake and the two HOAs more than three years to get a majority of the property owners to pony up. Today 110 Vista Verde owners and 211 Miramar Gardens owners are current on their payments, according to documents produced by Timberlake.
Eloise Nelson, a plump, droopy-eyed woman of 67 with fiery-orange hair, says she and other homeowners learned to pay their dues the hard way: under the threat of foreclosure. On this warm day, she has set up a metal folding chair outside the front door of her Vista Verde townhouse at 20908 NW 39th Ave. Across the street, alongside a boarded-up, burned-out townhouse whose owner died early last year, a group of young men partake unself-consciously of a fat marijuana blunt. She barely seems to notice as she launches into her grievances against Timberlake.
"Timberlake don't do anything but harass people," she growls. "When they first started collecting dues, I'd seen no improvement, so I stopped paying. They sure woke up then because they come after me, took me to court to try and take my house." By the time she made good on her back dues and legal fees last year, she owed more than $4900.
During a sit-down interview at a nearby community center, a session that included the board presidents of both homeowners associations, Rachel Dugger responded to Perez's accusations and denounced New Times for fixating on the couple's personal financial problems, their private business, and her husband's alleged crimes while in public office. "If you really care to see," she says with measured anger, "if you want to write anything that is truthful, which I know is hard for you to do, drive around the community and ask around. You'll see that a majority of the people here are happy."
Claudette Brinson, president of the Miramar Gardens Townhouse HOA, says she and Timberlake have tried to work out a settlement with Perez for the past three years, but to no avail. "All she has been doing is fight against us when we're just trying to better the community," says Brinson, who has lived in Miramar Gardens for 21 years. Timberlake's contract was renewed, she explains, because the associations couldn't find another property management firm that could match its price. "Besides," she adds, "we're happy with the job Timberlake performs here."
In 1983, Perez, a high school dropout who earns a living selling plants on street corners, achieved the American dream. She and Orlando Leiva had just married, and the couple was looking for a home. They found a two-bedroom, one-bath townhouse at 21459 NW 40 Circle Ct. and scraped together enough savings to buy it for $18,000. (Today townhouses in the community sell for between $40,000 and $65,000, according to area real estate agents.) As was the case then, a majority of the homeowners in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are former tenants of public housing who have qualified for low-income home financing.
The homes in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are plain, rectangular, single- and two-story structures lined up in rows of three to four townhouse duplexes to a block. Because of the relatively high crime rate in the area -- fueled, some say, by the handful of abandoned residences and small-time drug dealers scattered throughout both developments -- some owners have erected chainlink and wooden fences around their properties to keep out prowlers and other undesirables. There are no security entrances or perimeter walls that would indicate Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde are private communities. In fact both developments, which were built in 1972, are easily accessible from the two State Road 826 exit ramps, on NW 37th Avenue and NW 47th Avenue.
When she bought her townhouse, Perez claims, she received no notification that she and Leiva would have to pay into a homeowners association. "I didn't receive the bylaws and documents telling me there even was an association," she insists. She and other residents who have lived in the neighborhood as long as she has claim there was never an association collecting dues or sending out mailings of any kind.
When a person purchases a townhouse or a condominium, part of the deal invariably includes an agreement to join the homeowners association, which is headed by a board of directors elected by the property owners. The board is responsible for hiring a property management company to handle the association's finances and other administrative functions, such as obtaining flood insurance for the association and hiring security firms. A management company's biggest function is to collect monthly maintenance fees from the homeowners -- funds used to pay for the upkeep of things like building maintenance, roof leaks, and landscaping. "The property management firm operates at the discretion of the board," explains Rachel Dugger. "The board is the head of a community, and the property management company is the hands. If the head doesn't function, the hands can't do anything, either."
For years the Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde townhouse HOAs had neither heads nor hands. According to state incorporation records, both the Miramar Gardens Townhouse HOA and the Vista Verde Townhouse HOA had been deactivated in 1979 for failing to file annual reports with the state. As time passed, the neighborhood decayed from the lack of maintenance and a rise in crime, according to court documents filed by Miami-Dade County in 1997, in relation to a lawsuit the county was pursuing against the two defunct associations.
In 1994 Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde welcomed a new neighbor, the Universal Truth Center for Better Living; the church is located at 21310 NW 37th Ave., just north of Pro Player Stadium and on the eastern edge of Miramar Gardens. That same year, the church incorporated the Universal Truth Community Development Corporation, one of several dozen nonprofit organizations sanctioned by the county to receive block grants used, among other things, to refurbish county-owned, low-income houses; lease public subsidized housing; and offer counseling on financial stability to low-income individuals. By 1996 the church's CDC had formulated a plan with Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty Ferguson to clean up Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde and resurrect the HOAs.
According to church leaders and the two current HOA board presidents, both communities had fallen into decline precisely because there were no homeowners associations to enforce the bylaws and maintain order among the property owners. "Our community here was like New Jack City," recalls Nathaniel "Nat" Miller, Vista Verde's president, referring to the drug epic starring Wesley Snipes. "There was lawlessness, homicides, and the crime rate was high. Garbage piled up in the streets for weeks. All because we didn't have an association. The county got tired of getting complaints to clean up a private community."
Olivia Benson, the church's general counsel and the CDC's former executive director, recollects that both communities were in serious need of repairs, from fixing a street drainage system to replacing broken streetlights. The neighborhoods also lacked street signs, which made it difficult for service vehicles to find people's homes. "If you called an ambulance," she recalls, "it was anyone's guess how they would get to you."
Nor were her efforts welcomed by the residents. "I went through a lot with those communities," she says during a telephone interview. "I sustained a lot of personal, verbal attacks for the work we did." She says neighborhood animosity began against the church in 1996 in a dispute over the allocation of the Universal Truth CDC's first block grant of $45,000. The grant was to be used to fix up a county-owned Vista Verde house that was serving as a community center for the neighborhood children. Homeowners were upset that the county had used the CDC as a conduit for the funds instead of giving the money to Eloise Nelson, who used to run the community center.
In 1997 Miami-Dade County, through a resolution sponsored by Ferguson and adopted by the county commission, filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade civil court against the two dormant HOAs; the suit requested the court appoint a trustee to restore the two associations in order to address the problems of trash removal, crime, and general maintenance. The county had plaintiff status because its housing agency owned 21 homes in Vista Verde. Under state law, a property owner -- in this case, the county -- may sue an HOA in order to reorganize the entity. Ironically the county had contributed to the decline of Vista Verde, since seventeen of the housing agency properties had been boarded up since 1993, becoming local blights. (In 1998 the county contracted the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation to fix all 21 homes, using $1.65 million in federal housing grants. That CDC completed the project last year, and the housing agency has already sold one property to a low-income buyer, says Valeria Bland Thomas, executive assistant to Rene Rodriguez, the Miami-Dade housing director.)
In the year leading up to the lawsuit, Benson says, the county and the church CDC held regular meetings at the Universal Truth Center to inform residents of the necessity to reestablish the HOAs. "Most of the people who are complaining didn't come out to the meetings in the beginning," she says. "No more than 60 to 100 people would show up at a given meeting. But reestablishing the HOAs needed to be done."
She also assumed an integral role in the county's lawsuit. In November 1997, in her capacity as the CDC's executive director, she wrote to civil court Judge Stuart Simons, who was presiding over the case, to advise him of the church's support of the county lawsuit and the CDC's desire to work with the court-appointed trustee. Even before the lawsuit, she recalls, she had tried to hire several property management companies for Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde, but the only firm that agreed was Timberlake. "No property manager was going to come in and manage an association that didn't have a single cent to its name," she says, adding that Timberlake was not officially hired until Simons ruled in the county's favor and appointed a trustee in 1998. "Perhaps Bob Dugger saw he could make some money in the long run, but he was there when there was none to be made."
According to court documents, Simons appointed Moie J.L. Tendrich, a former circuit court judge, as the trustee for both communities on January 9, 1998. That March, Tendrich (who died in August 2001) requested -- on Benson's recommendation -- that Simons appoint Timberlake as the property management company. Later that year the county commission approved a $240,000 loan, and another $150,000 loan in 1999, using state surtax funds to pay for Tendrich's fees and related expenses in reactivating the homeowners associations, which included payments to Timberlake. Two years later, in 2000, when Tendrich had completed his job and the homeowners associations were again in place, Simons ruled that Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde must repay the county the $390,000.
Benson also recalls that after Tendrich was appointed, she and the Duggers "walked every inch" of the community, taking note of what needed to be fixed. "The trustee paid to have abandoned townhouses boarded up," she says. "We would walk into empty homes where rats would jump out of old pots. The problems and the neighborhood's feelings about Bob Dugger manifested because his company became the enforcer for the association payments. Everything was fine until the day the trustee decided it was time for everyone to start paying."
On April 30, 1998, Judge Simons approved Tendrich's request to begin collecting a $35 monthly maintenance fee from each of the Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde homeowners. Once Timberlake notified homeowners it was time to pay dues, "all hell broke loose," Benson says. "That's when we started seeing 200 to 300 people show up at the meetings. They couldn't see why they should pay. They didn't care if the roads were falling apart. People didn't see the good [that] Commissioner Ferguson, the church, and the CDC were doing for the community," she recalls. "They would protest outside the church on Sundays, carrying signs that Universal Truth was helping Timberlake put people out of their homes."
Perez sifts through the pages of court documents, incorporation records, bank statements, and other paperwork she has collected over the years in her quest to get rid of Timberlake and avoid foreclosure on her home because of the unpaid association dues. "The reason people don't want to pay," she professes, "is that we had no say-so in hiring Timberlake and in the reestablishment of the two associations. No one asked us to participate in the process. It was just done al estilo comunista."
She also maintains that the county, the Universal Truth Center, and Timberlake perpetrated a fraud upon the homeowners. "Everything they have done here is based on lies," she says emphatically. "But people give up when no one does anything to help. And the Duggers know that. They know there is no one protecting us, so they continue with their bullshit." She and other residents believe the county won its lawsuit because the defendants named in the complaint do not live in either Miramar Gardens or Vista Verde. As a result, they never showed up in court and Judge Simons issued a default judgment in the county's favor.
From one of her binders, she pulls out a copy of the May 15, 1997, court summons from the county lawsuit against the associations. The document clearly shows that the county served the summons on the Miramar Gardens HOA in southwest Miami, not the Miramar Gardens TownhouseHOA in Miami Gardens. And no one from Vista Verde was listed on the summons. Among those who are listed is Jorge Gomez, a former president of the Miramar Gardens HOA, who had died in 1994. "They didn't serve any of us, but they were able to resurrect a guy from the dead," Perez scoffs. As for Benson's account that the church, the county, and Timberlake were on a mission to help the neighborhood, she notes, "Everybody was looking to make money, especially the Duggers."
According to court documents, between 1998 and 2000, Simons authorized $129,834.88 in management fees and expenses for Timberlake. The company is currently paid $4620 a month to manage Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde. Timberlake is also reimbursed $13,000 a year for providing an on-site maintenance person.
Perez also argues that Tendrich created conflicts of interest when he reinstated both associations by naming himself, Olivia Benson, and Bob Dugger as the only board members for the Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde HOAs from May 1998 to January 2001. "How can you have the property manager and the church making the decisions for our community?" she asks. "Why didn't they look for residents to serve on the board?"
State law, however, allows court trustees to appoint whomever they want to a new board of directors when in the process of reorganizing or reestablishing an HOA. Furthermore, Benson counters, residents who did support the idea of collecting association dues were reluctant to run for board positions because of mounting public hostility, and Tendrich wanted to ensure that the two associations were stable enough to function on their own before turning them over to the homeowners. When the reinstatement was completed, Rachel Dugger says, Tendrich immediately held the first election, in February 2001. Property owners were elected to both boards, as were two employees of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, who represent the agency as property owners. Since then, she notes, both associations have had two more elections, the last one on March 6, 2003.
Perez alleges that Rachel Dugger colluded with several homeowners, including members of the current boards, to "fix" that first election to place favored residents on the boards. She accuses Dugger and Miramar Gardens' current HOA president, Claudette Brinson, of collecting blank proxies signed by homeowners and then filling in the names of those Brinson and Dugger wanted on the board. She also charges that last year the two boards amended the associations' bylaws and homeowner documents, such as prohibiting homeowners from having more than two occupants per bedroom, without a majority vote of the homeownership.
According to court documents, Perez and Leiva owe $2555 in unpaid association dues and another $3625 in attorney fees and court costs. "No one is going to come in here by force," she says with bravado, "take my money and take my home." She's been able to avoid foreclosure by keeping one step ahead of Timberlake. When the property management firm, on behalf of the HOA, sued her and her ex-husband on September 28, 2001, in order to initiate foreclosure on the townhouse, she was able to buy time when she proved to the court that the state had administratively dissolved the Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde homeowners associations on September 21, 2001. Timberlake had failed to file both associations' annual reports, and inactive corporations cannot file lawsuits. Timberlake and the associations' attorney, Eric Glazer, a Hallandale Beach-based lawyer, reinstated the associations and proceeded again with the lawsuit. Perez then called upon Gov. Jeb Bush for help via a rambling and passionate plea on May 25, 2002. "Please don't close your eyes to this e-mail," she wrote, apologizing for her grammatical mistakes. "If we go all the way to you it because here we can't go to know body that we could believe in." The governor responded via the Internet as well. "Taimira, thank you for writing. I have asked my cabinet legal counsel and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look into this and see if we can help." (An FDLE spokesman could not confirm the existence of a criminal investigation into either HOA or Timberlake.) Bush's office also put Perez in contact with attorney Juan Rodriguez, who is working pro bono on her behalf. He helped her avoid foreclosure by persuading her to declare bankruptcy. Once she clears bankruptcy this month, Perez believes, Timberlake will again seek to foreclose her property.
Amid her legal battles, Perez mounted an offensive against the Duggers. She rallied homeowners from both communities to protest in the streets, in front of the church, and at the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami, where the offices of the mayor, county commissioners, and the county manager are located. Leroy Jones, a member of the Miami-based black activist organization Brothers of the Same Mind, which serves as an advocate for minorities and low-income families, helped Perez organize the downtown demonstration, held during a county commission meeting. "Most of the residents didn't want Timberlake because they felt the company was trying to force them into losing their properties," he says. "The liens and attorney fees seemed pretty outrageous when you consider most of the people there are low income."
In 2002 Perez also began dissecting the personal finances of Bob and Rachel Dugger. Using the Internet, she logged on to databases of the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts and other public agencies, and discovered that the Duggers had their own winding trail of debts, liens, foreclosures, and judgments. She found out that Timberlake owed the IRS more than $260,000 in unpaid payroll taxes, in addition to the Duggers' back debt of more than $100,000 in personal federal income taxes. Her search of public records turned up 29 liens against Timberlake Management by the Florida Department of Revenue for not paying state taxes. In court files, she unearthed a 2001 lawsuit against the Duggers by Miami-based International Finance Bank, alleging that the couple had defaulted on a commercial loan. According to that case, the bank won a default $1.1 million judgment against the couple and foreclosed on a commercial building they owned at 5050 NW 74th Ave., which used to be Timberlake's headquarters. And she found homeowner complaints, filed with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, that led to investigations by state regulators into Bob Dugger's alleged mismanagement of four homeowners associations in Miami-Dade. In 2001 he was fined $1000 for withholding documents from one association and other acts of "gross misconduct."
Early last year, Perez went to Timberlake's office and demanded copies of financial statements and bank records for Miramar Gardens. The company produced a check history report and copies of canceled checks for all three of the Miramar Gardens bank accounts. Recently, as a followup to her first request for information, Perez asked to see the original signed and canceled checks, contracts, and invoices that would support the financial statements and check history reports she had previously obtained from Timberlake. Florida HOAs are required to maintain financial and accounting records, including itemized receipts and expenditures, for at least seven years. To date, Timberlake has not produced the checks, contracts, or invoices.
After reviewing the check history reports that Timberlake did provide, Perez says, she grew certain that the company was up to no good. For example, in 1999 Judge Simons granted Timberlake's request to pay the landscaping company H.E. Hernandez Enterprises $12,000 under a contract to provide lawn service and trash removal in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde. In late 2000 the landscaper sued Timberlake, claiming that the property management company had not paid for the $12,000 job and other work done at both communities totaling $25,690. Timberlake replaced H.E. Hernandez with The Works Landscaping, a company that leased an office in the Duggers' foreclosed commercial building from 1997-2001. According to Miramar Gardens bank statements, The Works received $150,289.10 between 2000 and 2002 for regularly cutting the lawns, trimming trees, cleaning up yard debris, and performing other landscaping chores.
During a tour of Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde, it is quite evident that vegetation is no longer a top priority. Trees with bare limbs and no leaves are in abundance. Dirt mounds dot the landscape where green sod should be. Broken sprinkler systems jut out from the ground. "What are they cutting?" Perez says sarcastically. "Weeds?"
Another peculiar expense item Perez came across was a $100 check to Adolph "Al" Coletta, a North Bay Village real estate investor who helped Dugger get elected to the North Bay Village City Commission in 2002. According to a copy of a canceled check, Coletta was paid for the removal of dead dogs from an abandoned home in Miramar Gardens. Perez didn't know Coletta, but last year, she says, she learned that Dugger was facing serious criminal charges because of his relationship with Coletta. According to his arrest affidavit, Dugger was charged with one misdemeanor for not revealing on his 2002 financial interest form, mandatory for all elected officials in Miami-Dade County, that he was "substantially indebted" to Coletta, who had assumed the mortgage on one of Dugger's investment properties and paid off the mortgage on another. The remaining six misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charges he faces in court pertain to votes he cast as a city commissioner in favor of a zoning request that would have benefited Coletta, who had also assumed ownership of Dugger's $1.5 million bayfront house in North Bay Village when Dugger's family could not pay off a bank mortgage on the property in 2002. Coletta paid off the mortgage and allowed Bob and Rachel Dugger to continue living in the house.
Perez is also after Eric Glazer, the association attorney brought in by Timberlake to file the liens and foreclosures against nonpaying homeowners. She believes Glazer and the Duggers orchestrated a scheme to gouge homeowners who are behind on their association dues by imposing outrageous attorney fees. Glazer and the Duggers have a history of often referring business to each other; for example, the Duggers have persuaded at least half of their Timberlake clients to hire Glazer as their association's attorney. In 2001 Glazer and Bob Dugger were also business partners in a company called Florida Condominium Center, which provided consulting services to homeowners associations. In addition Glazer, who declined written and verbal requests for comment, handled the three private real estate transactions between Dugger and Coletta that eventually helped lead to Dugger's arrest. "The Florida Bar should take away Glazer's license to practice law," Perez fumes. "They're all a bunch of delinquents."
Rachel Dugger, wearing a black power suit and teal blouse, walks authoritatively into one of the classrooms located in the Universal Truth Center; the church also runs a preschool day-care center. Blue contact lenses intensify her laser-beam stare, which could melt the wax off a communion candle. She is clearly not here to play with children.
She takes a seat at a desk to the left of Nat Miller and Claudette Brinson, the presidents of the two HOAs. "I am proud that we file liens and foreclosures so homeowners will pay their association fees," she says. "Timberlake is not here to be nice to people. We're not here to win a popularity contest. We are here to do our job."
Miller, Vista Verde's slim, goateed president, who sports cornrows beneath an elastic knit skullcap and a baseball cap, accuses the "radical" Perez of trying to undo the good the two boards and Timberlake have done. In fact, he suggests, Perez has no right to call for changes in his community. "How can a person have any say-so in something they don't pay into?" he asks. "She can't be telling you what go on in Vista Verde cuz she don't own no property in Vista Verde. This whole thing is propaganda, and it is time for it to stop."
Dugger claims that attorney Glazer was never a business partner with her husband, even though both men were listed as the only officers of the defunct Florida Condominium Center. Glazer, she says, actually lost money representing Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde, and came onboard as a favor for the Duggers. "We told him, 'You are well paid by some of our communities. This community has a problem. It can't pay its bills, much less pay you.' When you look at the amount of work he did in this community, Eric Glazer is owed about $70,000."
Court records show that between 2001 and 2003, Glazer filed at least 200 liens and foreclosure notices in Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde. Despite Rachel Dugger's assertions that the attorney has lost money, he did charge homeowners settling their past-due association payments sizable attorney fees. For example, Vista Verde homeowner Richard Unzueta negotiated a settlement with Glazer in August of last year, agreeing to pay $2310 in unpaid association dues and another $1875.75 in attorney fees under a ten-month repayment plan with interest. Another Vista Verde owner, Donald Cook, who hadn't paid his dues for two years, settled up by agreeing to pay $980 in past-due maintenance plus $3854 in attorney fees. Cook paid off the debt over a period of ten months between 2002 and 2003. Other homeowners were not so lucky. Patrick Moulton lost his Miramar townhouse on June 5, 2002, to the HOA when he was unable to pay $1715 in overdue dues and $2893.50 in attorney fees.
Last October, however, according to board president Miller, both association boards decided not to renew Glazer's contract and he was replaced by Maritza Betancourt, a Hispanic black who, Dugger says, can "identify" with the Hispanic and black property owners in the neighborhood. (Glazer still represents at least half of the homeowners associations managed by Timberlake.) "Attorneys don't work unless they get paid," she says, stating the obvious. "I knocked on a lot of doors before I found Maritza."
Since she was hired by the two associations, Betancourt has filed at least 26 liens and foreclosure notices against Miramar Gardens homeowners, and 38 liens and foreclosure notices against Vista Verde homeowners. She charges a $235 attorney fee for each lien she files. According to Dugger, Timberlake provides two warnings to homeowners who fall behind on payments, after which the company notifies the association attorney to file a lien and initiate foreclosure, which is typical of most HOAs in Miami-Dade.
Dugger also had an answer to the mystery surrounding Al Coletta's dog removal service. "There were two dogs that died, and I kept receiving calls about how bad the stench was," she recalls. "I called several vendors to please come pick up the dead dogs. They said no way. So Al Coletta, who is a friend of ours, did me a favor by picking up a street person and paying him $100 to pick up the two dead dogs full of maggots and put them in bags. The man did not have a bank account, so we gave Al a check for $100 so he could cash it and give it to this man. Believe me, Al did not pick up any dead dogs."
Jack Arias is a Brooklyn-born real estate investor and mortgage broker who bought and sold townhouses in Vista Verde when Timberlake first arrived on the scene and is now selling the last three townhouses he owns there. He says of his first encounter with Bob Dugger: "There was this abandoned townhome next to one of my properties that had been turned into a crackhouse. For weeks, I would call up Timberlake to do something about it, but never got a response. I finally insisted on meeting with Dugger. As the property manager, I told him, 'Can you board up this wide-open crack den, which is a plague to the neighborhood?' He told me to board it up myself."
Timberlake has exploited the people of Miramar Gardens and Vista Verde by preying on homeowners' fears of losing their properties to foreclosure if they don't pay their maintenance fees, he says. "The attorneys they hire do nothing but rip people off with excessive legal fees. Samira Gazhai, the attorney they had before Glazer, was so blatantly dishonest that they had to get rid of her." According to court documents filed by the two HOAs against nonpaying homeowners, Gazhai represented the associations for a brief period in 2000. During her tenure, she would charge each maintenance fee-owing homeowner $475 in attorney fees, $540 in late charges, and $275 for a title search. Even Rachel Dugger acknowledges that Gazhai was let go because of her exorbitant fees.
After Vista Verde resident Eloise Nelson stopped paying her association dues in 1999, Glazer filed a lien against her for more than $4000 in unpaid maintenance and attorney fees. Nelson says she was able to pay off the association through a loan she obtained from the Universal Truth Center. "But I'm not satisfied with their service," she says of Timberlake. "Look around. What do they do that we couldn't do ourselves? Then they write up a whole bunch of rules like we living in some condo on Miami Beach."
Nelson is convinced that Timberlake, the church, and the county have a grand plan in place to redevelop both communities into single-family homes. "But they don't want to do it the right way by offering you fair market value for your property," she theorizes. "They want to strong-arm you, muscle you out, Mafiosi-style."
The problem, says activist Leroy Jones, is that there was not much the county or Commissioner Betty Ferguson, whom many residents blame for allowing Timberlake to enter into their lives, could do. "Her hands were kind of tied," Jones says. "She had to stay out of it because of the board members of the two associations. They could have terminated Timberlake if they wanted to, but for whatever reason chose not to. I think the people who sit on the boards are people who don't face the same financial struggles that the other homeowners face." Of Perez, he says, "She cared about everyone else who was in the same situation she was in. We need more people like her in low-income neighborhoods."
Outside her home, Perez is scolding her son Omar to lay off the firecrackers he keeps igniting in the neighbor's front yard. She is mystified that the two boards remain so loyal to Timberlake and dismisses Miller's characterization that she is a "community leech" because she has never paid her maintenance fee. "Yeah, I'm going to risk putting my six kids out on the street for a measly $35 a month," she scoffs. "I'm the freak because I have invested all this time fighting them. As if I have nothing better to do with my life other than fight these damn delinquents."