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Red Dollars, Blue Pennies

Alvaro Diaz-Rubio

Even in its infancy, Florida's 2006 race for guvna is controversial. Last month, the Broward Republican Party broke with convention and endorsed Attorney General Charlie Crist for governor over state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. Broward's political types alleged that the premature endorsement was intended to push big money into ol' Charlie's campaign coffers.

And, boy, do the local Republicans have deep pockets for their gubernatorial candidates. In Broward, the most heavily Democratic county in Florida, Republicans are beating Democrats 5-to-1 in the fundraising game. Heck, even in Wilton Manors, the fourth-gayest city in the United States, Republicans raised more than Democrats.

Crist has raised $821,318 in Broward, while Gallagher has raised $523,091.

"That's astronomical," says Mitch Ceasar, chair of the Broward Democratic Party.

And how have Ceasar's Democratic gubernatorial candidates fared? Eh, uh, not so well.

State Sen. Rod Smith leads the Broward race with $131,238, while his counterpart, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, has raked in $120,007.

If fundraising levels are indeed accurate predictors of election results, then the 'Pipe has his chips on another four years of Republican leadership in Tally.

But don't give up on the Democrats yet, Ceasar warns. Republicans always raise more money in statewide races. Broward is still a stronghold for the Democratic Party, he says.

"The Republicans' money is from corporations and big businesses that just so happen to be in Broward," Ceasar says. "Big business gives big dollars. And that's symptomatic of the country. In the local races, all the money goes to the Democrats."

A lot of the campaign cash going to Crist and Gallagher, Ceasar says, is coming from a small group of people who are using their myriad corporations to subvert fundraising laws meant to cap contributions at $500 per person.

And he's right. Tailpipe found a prime example: bigwig GOP lawyer Bill Scherer. So far, Scherer has donated $1,500 to Gallagher's campaign with the help of two of his companies, Scherer Consulting and Scherer Realty.

"They may be from different corporations," Ceasar says, "but they're all from the stroke of the same Republican pen."

Dude, Where's My Oboe?

Once the Broward County School Board stops flip-flopping about the school year's start date, that distinguished body might want to get back to the business of managing what's going on inside the district's 262 schools. Or more precisely, managing what's disappearing from those schools.

For the past five years, the school district's audit division has reviewed the whereabouts of any school equipment worth more than $750. According to six audits conducted between May 2004 and October 2005, about $2.16 million worth of computers, band instruments, digital cameras, and shop equipment couldn't be found.

Some of the problem, chief auditor Patrick Reilly says, stems from sloppy paperwork at each school, so that auditors can't match actual equipment with master inventory lists. The stuff is there, someplace; it just couldn't be matched up, kind of like those socks that come out of the dryer without their mates. Other items end up in the district's salvage warehouse for the defunct and outdated but left no paper trail to indicate how the stuff got there.

"Some things do get stolen," Reilly adds. "A lot of time, schools don't even know it's gone until we do an inventory." (So, is that an oboe you've got under there, or are you just glad to see the end of the school day?)

The lists of missing equipment at times look like a pawnbroker's fantasy. Take, for instance, Nova Middle School in Davie, which had $82,000 worth of equipment missing in a 2004 audit. More than $11,000 of it was musical instruments: a $1,884 bassoon, a $785 French horn, a $929 xylophone, a drum kit worth a grand, and two tubas at $1,515 apiece.

But computer gear is where the big money lies. Nova couldn't find $43,000 worth of technology equipment, including seven iMacs at $1,195 apiece and 12 iMac G4s at $1,443 apiece. Not exactly a cluster of computers easy to misplace.

"We've pushed for every school to have one person who's designated to be on top of inventory," Reilly says. "We still have pockets where there are problems."

What the audits can't tell us, however, is the answer to the most perplexing question: Who'd wanna steal a bassoon?

Rent My Condo, Sucker

New Times writers, cynical bastards, couldn't help enjoying the spectacle last week as the newest of their members tried desperately to find housing in South Florida's sick landlord/tenant beatdown. After the laughter subsided, the 'Pipe was drawn — by the sounds of whimpering — to the new employee's cubicle, where she held a crumpled lease document, looking utterly defeated. Only after full payment of her application fee, she explained, did she realize the rental agreement in her hands was filled with draconian clauses intended to take a tenant for all she's worth. Curious, the 'Pipe gave the language a look-see and was astounded at the creativity of its author. To wit:

"If Lessee defaults in the payment of rent, fails to promptly perform any provisions of this Lease, abandons the Premises or otherwise fails to comply with the terms of this Lease, the entire rent for the remaining term of this Lease shall be immediately due and payable."

Translation: Known as an "acceleration" clause, this means that if the tenant screws up in any way, he'll owe up to the entire year's rent to his landlord all at once.

"Lessee agrees to pay the cost of collection and all attorney's fees incurred by Lessor to collect any rent due hereunder or to otherwise enforce the terms of this Lease, whether or not suit is instituted, and including all appellate proceedings."

Translation: The tenant pays both his and the landlord's litigation bills, even if the landlord loses.

"Promptly upon demand by Lessor, Lessee shall deposit with Lessor such additional sum as may be necessary to replace any amounts expended therefrom by Lessor so that there shall always be a security deposit in the sum first set forth above. It is mutually agreed that Lessor need not keep the security deposit separate, segregated or earmarked..."

Translation: The security deposit — a refundable sum that, by Florida statute, is supposed to remain untouched in a separate account as security against tenant misbehavior — becomes the landlord's personal perpetually refilling piggy bank for anything he says the tenant must pay for.

"Lessee acknowledges and agrees that utility expenses relating to water consumption for the rear bathroom in the attached duplex unit shall be borne by Lessee."

Translation: The tenant pays the live-in next-door landlord's water bill.

So, the 'Pipe wondered, are any of these clauses actually legal?

Yup — they all are.

"Generally speaking, this lease isn't that bad," says Bart Ostrzenski, a co-founding partner of Ostrzenski & Stricklin, a Fort Lauderdale law firm. He agreed that this lease was "overbearing," but he balked at saying it or any other South Florida rental agreement could be illegal.

"The things that are patently illegal are very few," Ostrzenski says. And there's nothing keeping landlords from including even those few: "As far as being punished for putting something in a lease document — I cannot think of a single term where that's even remotely a possibility."

The acceleration clause? "Completely legal," Ostrzenski says.

The attorney's fees? Ostrzenski says that no judge would ever honor it (isn't that the definition of illegal?), but there's nothing wrong with the landlord trying.

The piggy-bank security deposit? "By statute, it's required for the lessor to keep the security deposit separate," Ostrzenski says. "But I believe it can be agreed not to do it."

The next-door water bill? Legal as an 18-year-old.

Even a bona fide illegal clause such as the one about attorney's fees are "effective until deemed void," Ostrzenski says. And getting to court is well nigh impossible. Fort Lauderdale real estate attorney Geoffrey D. Ittleman says that most lawyers won't touch a tenant's case with a ten-foot pole: "Attorneys really do not want to represent tenants, because the law just presumes, and the court system presumes, that if there's an eviction process, the guy just isn't paying."

So like the now-quivering real estate bubble, tenant-eating lease clauses are just a fact of life in South Florida, Ostrzenski says. "Rentals right now are very competitive. Landlords can pick their tenants, they can pick their leases, and they can generally screw everybody."

— As told to Edmund Newton


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