Ask RedWeek / January, 2016

What is this voluntary ARDA-ROC fee doing in my maintenance fee bill?

I just paid all of my maintenance fees for the year, and noticed a special flyer in my HOA assessment encouraging me to donate money to ARDA-ROC. They only want $5 or so per unit, but I'm not clear on what the donation is for. I also noticed it is not tax deductible since ARDA-ROC is a political group, not a charity. What can you tell me about those ARDA-ROC fees?

Many owners are asking similar questions, so we talked to several timeshare owner advocates and ARDA-ROC to get their perspectives.

Frank Debar, chairman of the Florida Timeshare Owners Group, has joined a growing chorus of timeshare owner advocates who are challenging the "voluntary" donation fees sought by developers to support the American Resort Development Association's consumer affiliate, ARDA-ROC (Resort Owners Coalition).

"Any timeshare owner who donated $5 to ARDA and ARDA-ROC has financially supported the developers' interests over the interests their own, fellow timeshare owners, and all future purchasers," Debar said in an online posting on TUG (Timeshare Users Group). "Simply put, ARDA and ARDA-ROC do not represent the interests of the timeshare owner public, and it's about time that this be totally recognized."

These are clear-cut fighting words from a longtime former supporter of ARDA and ARDA-ROC. Debar served 28 years on the HOA board for the Cape Cod Holiday Estates resort in Massachusetts, and launched FTOG in 2004. FTOG members meet twice a year, hosting guest speakers to inform owners about topical issues, legislation, and other trends in the timeshare industry.

In an interview with RedWeek.com, Debar explained: "This is the season for maintenance fees, so I had to put it out there."

Debar says he soured on ARDA last spring when the trade organization, which represents all major US developers on legislation, policy, and tax issues, quietly pushed a Florida bill to revise many sections of Florida's timeshare laws. Some of those provisions, Debar contends, are clearly anti-consumer and pro-developer (one clause expands the legal protections for developers who make errors in disclosure and contracts; a second section raises the annual ceiling on maintenance fees). On a personal level, he was incensed by the fact that an ARDA representative, Keith Stephenson, appeared before a FTOG group in March "but neglected to touch on many of the proposed revisions within the Florida bill that ARDA was promoting at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. We specifically asked him to present these issues to our members for open discussion. Subsequently, our organization discovered that some of the proposed changes are quite injurious to timeshare owners here in Florida. We felt this was very deceptive."

To be fair, ARDA officials say that Stephenson made a full presentation to Debar's group. They also maintain that the Florida bill, signed into law last summer, benefits owners, HOAs, and developers. Some more information from ARDA-ROC's perspective on the bill can be found in their White Paper on the subject.

Debar is no stranger to political wrangles. While working as a corporate marketer in financial services for nearly four decades in the Boston area, he also worked on gubernatorial campaigns and served on local city boards. By any standard, he was plugged in to local politics and community issues.

"I am doing this work with FTOG because there is so little information of relevance being made available to individual timeshare owners from resorts, developers and from ARDA and ARDA-ROC," Debar said. "There's also a scarcity of timeshare owner organizations in this country that actively represent and support the many interests of timeshare owners."

At FTOG's last meeting, in November, FTOG hosted several industry advocates, including Shep Altshuler, publisher of TimeSharing Today, Greg Crist, CEO of the National Timeshare Owners Association, and Michael Finn, a Florida civil attorney who frequently represents timeshare owners in cases (or just plain squabbles) against HOA boards or developer companies. Sixty-five FTOG members attended. Debar says it was one of the best sessions in recent years.

"Our organization's Board of Directors unanimously voted to ban all representatives of both ARDA and ARDA-ROC from future attendance, as well as serving as guest speakers, due to ARDA's substantial financial backing and promotion of the recent revisions in the 2015 Florida Timeshare Act, which were strongly opposed by all timeshare owner organizations here in Florida," Debar wrote on TUG. "This legislation was blatantly favoring Florida developers and significantly harming the legal protections of owners and future owners of timeshare property within our state."

ARDA and ARDA-ROC actively lobby state legislatures to block tax hikes on timeshare owners, increase consumer protections for owners subjected to fraudulent resale scams, and promote adoption of non-judicial foreclosures (which are much less expensive than litigated foreclosures). At the state and federal level, they support investigations and prosecutions of people who process illegal transfers and dump unwanted timeshares into so-called "Viking" ships.

ARDA and ARDA-ROC are sophisticated, successful lobbying organizations that pursue simultaneous legislative campaigns in several states and the Caribbean. ARDA is funded by major developers. ARDA-ROC is funded by voluntary contributions from an estimated 1 million timeshare owners who donated $5.4 million in 2015, down from nearly $6.1 million in 2014. Individual donations range from $3 to $10.

It is safe to say that most timeshare owners don't have any idea how their contributions are spent. According to the organization's most recent audit, ARDA-ROC's top three expenses are $1.1 million for political contributions to candidates; $662,000 for lobbying; and $615,000 for legal work. No other single expense comes close to the top three.

"Most owners have no vested interest in the work we do," said Ken McKelvey, chairman and CEO of Defender Resorts and eight-year chairman of the ARDA-ROC Executive Council. "If it weren't for ARDA-ROC, the timeshare community would pay a hell of a lot more in state and local taxes."

McKelvey also said that the voluntary donation program on maintenance fee bills is crucial to the organization's ability "to hire lobbyists and read bills in every state that has timeshare." If HOA boards didn't put the ARDA-ROC checkoff on their bills, he added, "no one would pay them."

For more information on the organization and its priorities, visit the ARDA-ROC Web site.

Debar, meanwhile, is already preparing for FTOG's next meeting, March 13, 2016 at the Hampton Inn, Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. Timeshare owners interested in attending may contact Debar at 941-351-1384 or visit FTOG's Web site.

What do you think? Join in on our discussion on this topic »

About the author

This answer was provided by RedWeek's Chief Correspondent, Jeff Weir. Jeff is a California-based journalist who has covered California, Congress, and the White House. He also has roots in Silicon Valley, where he directed public relations and marketing programs for high-tech companies. He is also a timeshare owner and member of RedWeek.com.

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