Born and raised in Jamaica – the Caribbean island, not the neighborhood – Claudette Sergeant, 65, moved into Laurelton Gardens just as it became a co-op in 1988. The property, situated on 17 acres in Laurelton, Queens, consists of 17 two-story buildings with 384 one- and two-bedroom units. Sergeant has spent 32 years working as a claims inspector for New York State, reviewing mortgage requests for buyers of low-income housing. She started serving on her five-member co-op board as secretary in 2004 and became president in 2010. Two years after she joined the board, the Great Oil Spill Crisis hit and lasted for seven years. “It seemed like it would go on forever,” Sergeant says, and it taught her lessons every board member should know about handling a long-term problem.
Habitat:Tell me about this oil spill crisis that engulfed your property.
Sergeant: The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) came to us and said that a non-working, in-ground oil tank [one of eight tanks that fed the boilers in the 17 buildings] had started to leak. Oil was seeping into the soil; we tried to extract it from the soil, but the monitoring and extraction caused problems.'
Sergeant: It was taking too long. Once the banks learned that there was a DEC violation, they denied financing. As long as we had the problem, the banks were refusing to finance anyone [either potential buyers or shareholders who wanted to refinance]. People weren’t pleased to know that was happening, so people were becoming frustrated, and they complained.
Habitat: How did you handle the complaints?
Sergeant: We had quarterly shareholders meetings and updated them regularly.
Habitat: How did you pay for the project?
Sergeant: We budgeted each year for this expense so the residents did not have to pay [an assessment], and we pulled some money from our reserve fund.
Habitat: What ultimately happened?
Sergeant: We extracted that tank and over the next few years, we extracted all of the tanks. We’re now tank-free and running on gas.
Habitat: What did you learn that would be helpful to others who have underground tanks?
Sergeant: Our managers, Vincent and Kelly Occhipinti of Precision Management Group, told us that the Bulk Petroleum Storage Certificate [a clean bill of health from the state] requires a pressure test and a certificate renewal every five years, and Kelly said that it would be wise if old oil tanks have pressure tests more often. Also, you should have the super pay close attention to the level of oil to see if it seems to be disappearing faster than normal.
Habitat: Do you have any final thoughts?
Sergeant: I find that a lot of people purchase a co-op but they don’t know what a co-op is. They think it’s going to be the same as owning a house. So they need to be educated before they purchase.
Habitat: So how do you educate them?
Sergeant: We send out newsletters, have regular meetings, and also, when prospective purchasers are being screened, we say, “Do you know this is a co-op and what that means?”