GHI Town Hall Meeting
Greenbelt Homes, Inc. is the housing cooperative that owns the 1600 historic homes in Greenbelt. The members of the co-op elect a nine-member Board of Directors to set policies and make decisions, and one of the responsibilities of the board is to appoint a general manager to carry out day-to-day operations. In December 2011, long-term general manager Gretchen Overdurff retired, and the board hired Eldon Ralph, then Assistant General Manager, as the new General Manager of GHI. On February 4, a town hall meeting is held at Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department to introduce the membership to the new general manager and to discuss the visions and tasks facing the cooperative.
The title of the meeting is “GHI in 2012 and Beyond”: “GHI’s President Tokey Boswell will introduce the new General Manager, Eldon Ralph. They will discuss the leadership’s vision for the cooperative, the Board’s strategic plan and the major challenges ahead. Members will be encouraged to ask questions and provide feedback to the Board members and senior staff who will be in attendance. If you want to make a difference and have your voice heard, be sure to attend this meeting.”
Tokey Boswell, President of the Board of Directors, opens the meeting and introduces General Manager Eldon Ralph.
“Mr. Ralph was hired as Director of Physical Plant in April 1997, and he became Assistant General Manager in May 2008. He has a wealth of direct experience with the housing cooperative as well as expertise in administration, facilities management, and finance. He was born in Guyana, South America, and Eldon received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of the West Indies. He has completed an advanced degree in Plant Engineering/Maintenance Management at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in England. Mr. Ralph also has a Certified Diploma in Accounting and Finance. He has certifications such as Certified Plant Engineer, Chartered Engineer, and certifications in community association management as well.”
Eldon Ralph speaks about “Vision and Values for GHI Staff. “It was about fifteen years ago that I received a letter from Gretchen Overdurff, the former general manager. It informed me… First of all, the letter was dated April 1, 1997. She wasn’t playing an All Fools’ Day joke with me. This was a real job offer that I accepted. Now I have been here for fifteen years, and that’s really a very long time for anyone to remain in a job in this day and age. So you must be asking yourself, why am I still here? The reason I’m still here is because, and I’m saying this from the bottom of my heart, I really, really enjoy working with GHI.”
“We all know that GHI has a very rich legacy, and it is our responsibility to not only preserve that legacy and but also to enrich it, for the benefit of the current members and also for future members who are going to live in the co-op. And that is what I am going to do, working with you, working with our Board of Directors, and with our staff to enrich that legacy.”
“Our Board of Directors recently condensed GHI’s vision and mission statements into four ideals to make it easier for all of us to understand, and those ideals are: provide quality, affordable homes; preserve and protect the community; promote involvement; and nurture understanding of our cooperative and respect for members.”
Three members of the Board of Directors are here from right to left David Morse, Bill Jones, and Tokey Boswell.
“On my first day as general manager, which was December 12, I met with the staff and I shared with them our mission and vision statements but also discussed with them five values.” These values are: first, do what is right; second, take care of our members; third, take care of our employees; fourth, foster teamwork; and fifth, use our resources effectively.
GHI department heads at the meeting are, from left to right, Director of Technical Services Tom Sporney, Director of Finance Joe Perry, Director of Maintenance Matt Berres, Director of Human Resources Brenda Lewis, and Director of Member Services Joan Krob.
Ralph concludes: “I want you to know I am very, very excited to be your general manager. I know there are going to be many ups and downs. But you know there is a saying, if you can’t stand the heat, don’t be in the kitchen. I decided to be in the kitchen because I like working here. And I know with your continued support and good will that we will be successful going forward. I look forward to the challenge.”
Tokey Boswell, President of the Board of Directors, speaks about the board’s 2-year vision and 2-quarter work plan (January to June 2012). In the 2-year vision, he emphasizes the energy upgrade pilot program, GHI’s revenue stream, and the electrical and bathroom inspection program. In the work plan for the next six months, he speaks about education efforts to inform members about the pilot program and upgrade, the vacant accounting manager and project manager positions, and discussions about GHI’s rental rules.
The biggest challenge facing GHI is the aging of its homes, mostly of them more than 70 years old. A pilot program is being carried out in 28 homes and a community-wide upgrade is scheduled for 2015. This will be a complex process with many issues still to be determined, such as what to upgrade and how to pay for it. Boswell emphasizes many channels GHI has developed to communicate with members including a redesigned website, a section titled “GHI News in Review” in the Greenbelt News Review, a quarterly publication called the Communicator, and a weekly email newsletter.
Another problem that has become more acute recently due to the economic downturn is the rental problem. By rule, GHI homes are member occupied and rentals can only be approved by the Board of Directors in special situations. However, with the drop in house prices, many members who bought homes in recent years are upside down in their mortgages, meaning they owe more to the banks than what their home can sell on the market. If they have to move, they will have trouble selling their homes, and members in these situations are asking the board to approve their rental requests. Boswell speaks about a task force to study this problem.
Boswell talks about Greenbelt Development Corporation (GDC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of GHI. “It was created to be a for-profit company for us, and the profits from this company benefit members by offsetting the GHI expenses.” GDC currently owns Parkway Apartments in Greenbelt’s city center, and the apartment fees and maintenance charges are income for GHI. Recently GDC put in an offer to buy Lawrence Apartments across the street from Greenbelt Library. It has been outbid, but Boswell tells that the sale has not been finalized and the board is still hopeful. He also mentions that the board is studying possibilities of buying properties farther away such as in College Park or Silver Spring.
There will be a question and answer period but people can also submit written questions. Here a meeting attendee receives a card.
More than 150 people are in attendance at the town hall meeting.
After Boswell’s presentation, Karen Yoho from the Nominations & Elections Committee speaks about the upcoming GHI annual meeting and election in May. Several members of the Board of Directors and members of the Audit Committee and Nomination & Elections Committee will be elected in that election. Here Yoho has in her hands blue 2012 Candidate Packets.
A member asks about considerations regarding purchasing additional apartments, whether the board is getting expert advice and whether buying properties in College Park or Silver Spring will require extra staff. She reminds the board that some Greenbelt cooperatives had gone on expansion in the past and failed. Standing on the left, moderating the Q/A session is Silvia Lewis.
Ralph answers that Lawrence Apartments is similar to Parkway Apartments that GDC already owns so the staff has a good sense about maintenance problems and costs. He says that financial statements provided by Lawrence were studied and the final cost will be based on a commercial appraisal. He adds that when studying properties farther away, distance from Greenbelt will be taken into consideration.
A member asks about recent lawsuits against GHI including a highly publicized second-hand smoking lawsuit and a case involving her neighbor. She tells of a next-door neighbor who recently moved out of GHI leaving brand new clothes and furniture on the front lawn. “Unacceptable.”
Boswell answers that the cost of the lawsuit was covered by GHI’s insurance policy after the deductible was paid. It was ruled in GHI’s favor but the member who brought the suit is appealing. He does not elaborate on the other case.
A member talks about a new approach to solar energy—solar garden. Maryland State Senator Paul Pinsky is sponsoring a community net metering bill to allow those who cannot put panels on their roof to buy renewable energy from a collective source to offset their own energy usage. (A net metering bill for individual home or business, also sponsored by Pinsky, passed Maryland legislature last year.)
Tom Sporney, Director of Technical Services Department, tells that GHI has studied putting solar panels on the roof of its administration building. “We recently came to conclusion that it’s not a good situation to purchase the panels themselves, but now we are investigating a prepaid lease.”
A member is concerned about rentals. “Are you enforcing the rules on rental of GHI homes by members to others? And if not, then why not?”
Ralph answers that GHI has approved the subletting of 22 units, and of them three subleases have expired. GHI is working with these members to resolve the situation. He also received an anonymous note last week regarding a member subletting without permission, and that needs to be investigated. There are also situations where members own two units and are not living in either one. He tells of someone working in D.C. and wanting to move there; however he is underwater with his mortgage and cannot afford to sell the home with a big loss. Ralph says that it is good to have a task force to consider these issues and encourages members to come to its meetings and find solutions.
Boswell adds that in the past rentals were strongly discouraged in part because GHI as a whole got the homestead tax credit and had to certify the community is owner-occupied. Now with individual tax bills, the rentals no longer affect other people’s homestead tax credits. “It changed the rules there.” He says that the community has to figure out the impacts of subletting and the ways to deal with it.
A member says that a home in her court has been vacant for a while and is deteriorating. She asks whether the staff can look into it.
Ralph replies that that home is one of two GHI homes in foreclosure. He says that they are very much underwater and GHI’s attorney is negotiating a short sale agreement with the banks so that the price can be attractive for GHI to purchase them.
Joe Perry, Director of Finance Department, talks about the ongoing real estate tax appeals. He says that GHI initiated an appeal for about 230 units and he is expecting rulings regarding appraisal values in eight weeks. He will not know the tax amount until GHI receives the actual invoices in July.
A member raises questions about buying properties outside of Greenbelt. She notes that GHI residents have more community spirits and are likely to resolve things among themselves rather than going to court. She suggests a referendum on this issue.
Eldon Ralph talks about issues with WSSC (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the water and wastewater company servicing GHI) and Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company). He says that in 1958, GHI, the City of Greenbelt, and WSSC signed an agreement to cede the responsibility for water pipes to WSSC and “actually paid them money to take those systems from us.” But recently after it was determined that the pipes need to be replaced, WSSC is asking GHI to contribute more. “If we were to follow WSSC’s last proposal, we estimate we will be responsible for about 21,000 feet of piping, which would mean having to increase the replacement reserve’s contributions from members in masonry homes by about $42,000 a year, which will equate to roughly about $60 for each individual member.”
With regard to Pepco, he says that it has agreed to replace about 291 electrical poles within Greenbelt and 37,000 feet of electrical wire and promised to complete the project this year. Ralph says this is not related to the smart meter issue.
In answering a member’s question about Pepco’s plan, Matt Berres, Director of Maintenance, says that Pepco has been surveying poles and power lines and will be replacing some of the transformers and old wires. He is going through their maps to determine whether poles can be better placed.
After two hours, the meeting concludes with applauses from the audience.