Ruffalo: Could the water be affecting City Council?

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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As is probably the case with many of you gentle readers, I’m starting to wonder if some mind-altering drug has been slipped into the drinking water over at Auburn’s City Hall. By now, most of you are well aware of the recent Dr. Bill Kirby blowup directed at fellow council member Mike Holmes. Granted, Kirby apologized quickly and profusely, and the heretofore unsullied Council remains populated by adults, so we probably can count on the city being run as well as it has been of late. But now we find out another elected official has had his moments. The reference is to Joe LaBrie, Auburn’s city clerk. Seems that on the first of this month, LaBrie caused some of his Auburn Palms neighbors to take umbrage at him during what was purported to be a Tenants Association meeting. Richard Walther, who attended that meeting, said LaBrie became, shall we say, overly vociferous during the event. “He was shouting at the board, and telling it that he had canceled the meeting. It was all quite loud and insulting,” Walther said. Walther also claimed that LaBrie had posted handbills at the complex the night before claiming that the following morning’s meeting had been canceled. LaBrie admitted to disseminating the handbills, but denied he was out of control at the meeting. “It was the board that wouldn’t let me talk,” he insisted, adding that “as president of that board, I wanted to preside over the meeting.” Whichever side you wish to believe, here is your choice, but it should be pointed out that it got so loud there that Auburn’s Finest were called to the scene. APD Sgt. Mike Garlock checked the records, then told me that the officer was sent “to keep the peace after a reported disagreement. Nobody was kicked out although we did speak to Mr. LaBrie. We told both sides that there was a right to assemble and that as far as we determined, there was no reason to end the meeting.” LaBrie, who helped found the association in 2007, said it had lapsed as of late, and now it was trying to reconstitute itself. “Some (tenants) want me to return the treasury money (which he has been holding since the elected treasurer passed away) and a donated printer, and I will do so, but only to a (duly elected) board,” he said. It suddenly occurs to me that LaBrie was running for a seat on the City Council. Had he won, maybe we could have seated him next to Kirby ... LOPsided: As is the case with most governmental entities, Lake of the Pines also has a severe case of the financial shorts. However, unlike a county or an incorporated city, LOP doesn’t have the legal weapons in its arsenal to solve the growing problem of dwindling revenues caused by a rash of foreclosures. Board member Chuck Lautrup explained the dilemma. “Cities get much of their revenue from property taxes, and if there is a foreclosure, it has a superior lien on that property so eventually gets paid,” he said, adding that LOP doesn’t enjoy such a position. “Instead, we (the homeowners association) are way down the priority list, so after the county and other superior creditors get their money, there’s very little — if any — left for us,” he explained. How bad is it? Well, at a recent budget meeting, Lautrup said that LOP had already charged off $140,000 in bad debt for the year, and was in the process of writing off another $60,000. Meanwhile, banks, which hold most of the devalued paper, aren’t exactly rushing in to help solve the problem. “That’s because if a bank forecloses, it then becomes responsible for the assessment and maintenance,” he said. He knows all about banks, having retired after nearly four decades in that industry, Lautrup knows the ins and outs of this problem, and presently, there don’t seem to be that many outs. As homeowners hit the financial brick wall, paying a large annual dues payment doesn’t seem as important as buying those luxuries of life such as food, clothing and utilities. “But, even if the assessments don’t come in, (the association) still has to pay its bills,” Lautrup said. As usual these dark days, the only good news is that there’s no more bad news. “Yes, we’re raising the annual assessment,” he said, pointing out that $75 hike (to $1,974) is all due to putting together a future road replacement fund. “Otherwise, we’ve been cutting spending and getting a lot more for our money, such as increased (production) from our employees,” he added. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. Reach him at