New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
Paula Chin in Board Operations on March 3, 2017
Bell Park Gardens co-op in Queens was once known as “the Jewel of Bayside.” But the board got old and tired and the property’s 39 buildings followed suit – weedy brown lawns, cracked brickwork, falling gutters, unplowed snow, and other signs of not-so-benign neglect. Something had to give. The entrenched board members had to go.
When Brian Sokoloff and Mark Ulrich got elected to the c-op board in 2016, they and another new board member began putting the co-op’s house in order. After placing an ad for a property manager on Craigslist, members reviewed some 50 résumés before hiring Stuart Betheil, who has more than 30 years experience.
“There had been a certain lack of organization and supervision,” says Betheil, who took over as managing agent at Bell Park Gardens in November 2016. “Projects like roofing work and converting boilers from oil to gas had been done, but it’s not clear whether engineers provided specs and all the work met the proper requirements.”
One of Betheil’s first actions was to upgrade the co-op’s technical and information systems. “They had three computers in the office that didn’t talk to each other,” he recalls, which was an inefficient way to keep track of data. “There was no inventory control of what materials had been purchased or what had to be ordered for repairs, and no records of operating equipment like snow plows and pickup trucks. I had to switch from paper to an electronic system to track work orders and how much money was being spent.”
Because maintenance was too low to cover operating expenses, the co-op had been using revenue from the 20-percent flip tax on apartment sales to bridge the gap – never a good idea. “That meant we were relying on every penny from the flip tax – not to build up reserves for capital projects and emergency repairs, but to pay for day-to-day costs and bare-bones essentials,” Ulrich says. “But you have no control over the real estate market or how many units are going to sell, which meant there was no guaranteed income. We had to raise maintenance by eight percent.”
It was time for a reckoning. “The board had painted a rosy picture, but I didn’t like what I found,” Ulrich says. So in October 2016, the board convened a shareholders’ meeting at which Ulrich laid out the facts in a PowerPoint presentation. Geoffrey Mazel, the board’s attorney, also invited State Senator Tony Avella and City Councilman Barry Grodenchik to explain property tax laws and how they affected Bell Park Gardens’ bottom line.
“The property tax increases, which are in the double digits at many garden apartments in Queens, are a real budget-buster,” Mazel says. “People weren’t happy to hear that, but they were glad to have someone explain it to them in a comprehensive way at a shareholder meeting, which had never happened at Bell Park [Gardens] before.”
Since then, Ulrich has been busy assessing which repairs have to be done in the next 10 years and finding ways to fund them. For his part, Betheil says he has dozens of items on his to-do list, including putting together a guide for residents that would cover everything from the protocol for unit alterations to a list of services and how much they cost.
In the end, a crucial element in the success of the reformers at Bell Park Gardens was that Sokoloff and Ulrich ruffled few feathers in making the transition from old to new. “It’s easier to bring about change if you focus on issues and not personalities, because people get defensive,” Sokoloff says, noting that his predecessors on the board have been generally supportive of the new board’s initiatives. “The previous board members didn’t necessarily think that their way of doing things was better, and seeing alternatives has been a real eye-opener for them. They’re marveling at what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
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