Board members are constantly reinventing the wheel. Elections come and presidents, vice presidents, secretaries, and treasurers go, and with them often goes the knowledge gained through years of experience.
To address this dilemma, we talked with four co-op and condo “newbies” who play a very important monetary role – board treasurers who have served anywhere from two months to two years – and asked them to offer on-the-job questions. We then passed the inquiries along to four seasoned treasurers, most of whom have seen it all while serving for a decade or longer on their boards.
Who they are and what they said follows.
Tania Orenstein, an accountant at Time Inc., moved into the sprawling, 935-unit Georgetown Mews co-op in Queens in 2007. As it happens, a co-worker at Time serves on the Georgetown Mews board. At her co-worker’s urging, Orenstein ran for the board last November and was elected treasurer. “I thought it would be interesting to know how things work at the co-op,” she says, “and I thought that with my accounting background, I could contribute.”
Half a year into the job, she’s beginning to think she was right. “I scrutinize expenses a little more than someone who isn’t trained in accounting,” says Orenstein, who recently gave birth to a baby girl. “The CPA factor is definitely good.”
In her short time as the chief financial officer (CFO), Orenstein has learned three things: (1) “It’s important not to be afraid to ask questions and to listen carefully and think critically. Don’t take things at face value. There’s always another side.” (2) “Being treasurer is a lot more work than being a board member.” And (3) “Paperwork is not as much fun as going to meetings and being with people.”
Her question to the veteran treasurer:
“To relieve the burden on me and to get more people involved, our co-op is starting a finance committee. How many people should I get? What sort of people should I try to recruit? What particular skills should I be looking for? What should I share with them? Is there financial information that I should keep confidential? What can I safely delegate and what should I keep for myself? Is there anything else I should be concerned about?”
Two treasurers respond. The first is Carl Wish. For more than a quarter of a century, Wish has served as treasurer of his 54-unit co-op at Riverside Drive and 79th Street. “It’s a balancing act,” he says of the treasurer’s job. “I got into it because I was interested in seeing how the building works and in protecting my investment. But I look at the job as protecting the interests of all the shareholders. It’s about the common good.”
Treasurers, he advises, should always do two things: look for the building’s assets and look for ways to keep expenses down. His co-op met these twin goals by maximizing profits from its 60-space garage and by bringing in electric submetering. The result was steady maintenance for many years and modest maintenance increases of three to four percent over the past 10 years. “The treasurer’s job requires a bigger commitment of time than one might anticipate,” Wish says. “It’s more than bookkeeping.”
In responding to Orenstein’s inquiry, Wish is unequivocal: “I don’t really feel a new ‘committee’ is typically necessary – the board of directors is already a committee, and sharing financial information with them and seeking advice/counsel from them is normally effective.”
He says the treasurer can also draw on the building’s accountant and the managing agent’s financial staff to or guidance. Adding more people to the mix can just add a level of confusion. “If a committee is deemed necessary, then I feel it should be composed of a subset of the existing board, who should already have all the relevant financial information and tasks assigned among them based on time involved/interest. Most building issues, financial or otherwise, primarily require common sense and good judgment as opposed to specific skills.”
Stanley Greenberg, a certified public accountant who specializes in auditing co-ops and condos, also answers the question. For the past six years, he has been treasurer at Le Havre, a 1,024-unit cooperative nestled between the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges in the Beechhurst section of Queens.
“I know this subject well,” says Greenberg, 62, who moved into the waterside complex in 1972, a dozen years before it was converted to a co-op. “One reason I ran for the board is my knowledge of the industry. Making sure the finances are handled correctly is very important to me.”
Perhaps the key to Le Havre’s current financial health was the decision by the board, shortly after Greenberg was elected in 2004, to get rid of its management company and take over the bulk of management duties. “Now we have a management company that’s strictly back office,” says Greenberg. “This works very well for us because we save a huge amount of money – up to $300,000 a year – and we know exactly what’s going on.”
That became evident last year when the board completed a massive $39 million capital improvement project, including the roofs, parking areas, windows, and exteriors. The money came from several sources – a mortgage refinance, grants, and an ongoing capital improvements assessment. For the current fiscal year, the board was able to institute a modest 2.5 percent maintenance increase.
As for his answer to Orenstein’s question about committees, he is more favorably inclined towards them than Wish. “A good working finance committee is probably one of the most important committees a co-op can have,” he notes. “As far as the size is concerned, it depends on the size of your co-op. I would say that for a small co-op anywhere from three to five persons is a typical, workable size. If yours is a larger co-op, you could go up to eight if you can get interested parties. You should be looking for potential members with a financial background. It would be helpful if you can get a member who has budgeting experience.
“I would also include someone with a real estate background and management experience. A well-rounded committee would also include a person who knows the building and could give input on repair and maintenance costs and/or capital improvement costs. The function of the committee should involve budgeting (operations and capital improvements), potential income sources, cost containment, and contract cost evaluation.
“The committee’s input should be used by the board of directors in its decision-making process. As far as financial information to which the committee should be privy, it depends on what the board wants to share with the committee members. Items such as payroll and shareholders arrearages probably should not be available to the committee members. If you, as treasurer, approve invoices for the co-op, this should not be delegated, but the committee can have knowledge of the expenses of the building.”
Sharon Madison, a credit analyst with a national financial services company, moved into a 1,230-unit co-op in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill in 2001 and was elected to the board in 2006. When the co-op’s longtime treasurer stepped down earlier this year, the board didn’t have to look far for a successor. “The president and vice president of the board noticed my skill set, in regards to efficiency,” Madison says. “There are so many emerging ways of doing things, and I want to keep the board open-minded to new ways of cutting costs, whether we’re buying supplies or making capital improvements. If something can be automated, maybe we can cut costs.”
Or, it might be as simple as knowing how to shop. “For example,” Madison says, “when we buy fuel, why just get two or three price quotes? Why not get four or five or six? We should always do comparison-shopping to get the best rate. You can’t keep going up constantly on maintenance.”
While she is happy to rely on guidance from the co-op’s management company and fellow board members as she learns the ropes, Madison has a clear goal: “I want to learn how the infrastructure works, and I hope to become autonomous.”
Her question has to do with responsibilities of the treasurer.
“Because I am new to the board and the president and vice president have been here for a while, I have found that they – and the managing agent – sometimes make decisions that involve financial questions and do not consult with me.
“If we take money out of the reserves, that shouldn’t be the decision of just two officers, right?
“How do other buildings handle situations like this? Is there a formal list of the responsibilities of the treasurer that I can consult? If not, what are the responsibilities of the treasurer? With elections every year, there can potentially be change every year and there has to be some continuity for the treasurer. What has your building done? What is your advice based on your experience? How actively involved should I be?”
The answer to her question cOMES from Maurice Eskenazi, who moved into a 210-unit Upper East Side co-op 30 years ago. A former corporate chief financial officer and now a financial advisor, he has served on the board, off and on, for 10 years, two of them as its treasurer. “The treasurer doesn’t have a free hand,” Eskenazi says. “He has to execute what the [seven-member] board has decided.”
And Eskenazi has found that it’s virtually impossible to please all of the people in this 21-story, post-World War II building – because some of the shareholders are well off while others are on fixed incomes. “So improvements happen only when there’s a major need,” Eskenazi says. “We go from the bottom up. It’s tricky because if we renovate something, it will increase value, but if you raise maintenance, it will decrease resale value.”
Over the years, the building has undertaken renovations of its heating and air conditioning systems, elevator and hallways. Eskenazi says the improvements have been paid for from a variety of sources – maintenance increases, assessments, and the reserve fund. Maintenance increases now run from three to five percent a year. “On the board,” Eskenazi says, “we try to work together not to go into extra expenses that are going to decrease the value of the property.”
He is surprised that newbie Madison was left out of the decision-making loop by the other officers. “Unless it was an emergency, it was a faux pas or an oversight on the part of the president or the vice president to bypass her. They should have been working with her. Who were the signatories? Is she one of the signatories or not? And as the treasurer, she should have been one. Usually, what we have is at least two signatories for every transaction when we make transactions from one account to another. As a matter of courtesy and decorum, they should have included her.
“The responsibilities of the treasurer include working with the managing agent and with the board to prepare the budget. She has to review the monthly expenses and collections to see who is in arrears. She also should be spot-checking some invoices, because the managing agent is paying dozens and dozens of bills every month. She should look at four or five invoices, to see if the property has received the services for those invoices. And then on a monthly basis she should be examining the variances in the budget.”
Neil Kukreja, 47, was born in Bombay and is now a successful Manhattan entrepreneur. After moving into the newly converted 283-unit condo at 20 West Street in 2006, he began to suspect that this downtown building’s finances were in disarray. He was elected to the seven-member board in 2008 and has been treasurer since last year.
“When the sponsor gave up control of the board in 2008,” Kukreja says, “the board was handed a huge deficit -– $250,000 – and there was no reserve fund. When I became treasurer I started a review of the books for the past years. I used my own company’s resources. That’s when we discovered that the management company was spending money like a runaway freight train. The first thing we did was insist that at least one board member sign all checks along with the management company. Basically, financial controls kicked in.”
Today, as a result of that, the deficit has been wiped out and the building enjoys a surplus that will approach $1 million this year – without any assessments or increases in common charges. “If you look for problems,” Kukreja concludes, “you’ll find problems.”
“How do you determine what are legitimate charges to the building and what are bogus (self-interested) ones? What are the common tricks sponsors use to cover their tracks?”
CPA/treasurer Stanley Greenberg responds: “The first part of my answer concerns what was done in the past. If you want to determine past practices of the sponsor as far as your building’s operations and finances, then I would say that you should hire a professional to perform an audit of the books and records for a designated period of time to determine the propriety of expense charges and the income during the period of sponsor control.
“As far as going forward, I would approve all expenses before the invoices are paid and make sure they are appropriate charges. Look for repair charges to sponsor apartments to determine whether or not the condo should be paying these costs. On a monthly basic, check the managing agent’s report of receipts and disbursements to insure only those approved invoices were paid and none other. Make sure payments from shareholders to the building are properly recorded.
“Also, make sure the managing agent is billing for other charges such as late fees, storage room fees, and sublet fees where appropriate. Ask management to send a copy of the monthly bank statement and bank reconciliation for you or the board to review. Finally, make sure only approved contracts are paid by management and that the total payment agrees with the contract. Keep in mind that the above requires additional time for you or the board, but it will give a secure sense that the building is being properly run financially.”
Laura Corwin had been living in a 97-unit co-op in Forest Hills, Queens, for about three years when she realized the place was not being run properly. So, in late 2007, she decided to run for the board.
“My neighbor, who’s now president, and I were unhappy,” says Corwin, who produces food and music shows and documentaries for TV. “When we got elected and I became treasurer, it was definitely daunting because the previous board was disorganized and I had no idea what a treasurer does. I had to wing it.”
The first thing Corwin did was go over the financials. She was in for a shock. The co-op had a $66,000 deficit and was paying stiff interest for overdrafts; violations for elevators and lead paint and other things had been corrected but not reported; water billing was done by the costly old frontage system; and the sponsor, who owns 42 of the 97 units, was managing the co-op – badly.
Corwin and her two compatriots on the five-member board got busy. (The sponsor has two seats.) “We cut costs, hired a new management company, switched from frontage to meter water billing, and put in a maintenance increase,” Corwin says. “I thought there would be a lynching, but people were actually elated.”
Rightly so. Within a year, the $66,000 deficit had turned into a $3,500 surplus. Today, the surplus has swelled to $72,000. For Corwin, who had to make it up as she went along, one lesson stands out. “If you just start delving into paperwork and examine everything, you will find money,” she says. “What makes it hard is if you have a bad management company. Now we have Mark Greenberg Real Estate, and we’re completely happy with them.”
“If you don’t have financial professionals on the board and you don’t have a good managing agent, to whom do you turn for advice as a treasurer? Is there any seminar or book that outlines what we need to know and what we need to do? Where do you get training as a co-op treasurer?”
Longtime board member Jill Dube respondS. Dube has plenty of know-how: she used her expertise as a real estate lawyer to help guide her Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, co-op – either as a board member or advisor – since the 54-unit building’s conversion in 1986.
“I do this because it’s my equity and everyone else’s,” says Dube. “The building wasn’t being run well after the conversion, and when I first got on the board we had to raise maintenance twice. Now, we have enough people in the building with monetary sense, so we don’t have to do that anymore.”
As treasurer, Dube tries to plan ahead so that the sting of major expenditures can be spread out over time. To cover Local Law 11 work that’s now being completed, for instance, the board spread an assessment over a one-year period. After keeping maintenance flat for the past two-and-a-half years, the board is raising it by eight percent to cover relentlessly rising costs.
“We’ve always had a very hands-on board,” Dube says. “When you rely too much on your management company, you don’t always get what you want. It depends on the competency of the individual manager.”
To answer Corwin, Dube points to the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, which, she notes, “has excellent training for board members. Friends and clients of mine, who are in small, self-managed buildings, have found the classes very helpful. A second source should be the CPA for the building. The requirement of having an annual financial statement distributed to all shareholders and the filing of tax returns does not disappear just because there is no managing agent. As the accountants usually have more than one co-op as a client and can give advice as to what has to be done, one or two board members should sit down with the accountant to discuss budgeting and payment of bills.”
Concludes Dube: “Being a treasurer of a building is not much different from keeping track of your family’s income and expenses, just on a larger scale.”