The pink slip came attached to the June electric bill of the Meadowbrook Home Owners Association. It was a final notice from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., threatening to disconnect the community's street lights.
The electric company made good on its threat, and the lights went out on Meadowbrook's streets in late June. For the past three months, allegations have been flying in all directions about how the unpaid debt mounted to more than $14,000 from 1995 to 1998 and who is responsible for paying it.
I'm no Judge Judy, but it seems to me a full cast of characters played a role in creating the drama that now threatens the safety of the residents who live in the community's 114 town houses.
LaVonn Reedy Thomas, 34, president of the association, says Washington Homes, the company that developed the neighborhood off Route 301 in 1992, is responsible for at least a part of the bill. Representatives of Washington Homes managed the Home Owners Association for the first three years and entered a contract with BGE to lease 17 light poles for the neighborhood.
That is not unusual. In most new subdivisions, the developers' representatives sit on the board of the association and conduct its business until the community is 70 to 75 percent complete. Then, residents elect their own representatives.
According to Thomas, when Meadowbrook residents took over the board in 1995, Washington Homes failed to disclose the contract and since then has been unresponsive.
She said residents on the new board noticed a line item in the budget for utilities, but its management company was unable to explain why it had no records of an electric bill from the previous management company.
The association did not learn about its obligation to BGE until 1996, when Washington Homes called to say the electric company was threatening to turn off the street lights, Thomas said. But even then, Thomas said, the new board believed the unpaid balance was for electrical usage only.
The association learned about the lease in late 1997 when its management company began asking questions, Thomas said. By then, the debt had mounted beyond the association's ability to pay.
Deborah Ailiff, the in-house attorney for Washington Homes, said the association's financial obligations were outlined in a monthly budget, which was turned over to the new board when the residents took over. The budget contained a line item for utilities, about $400 a month, she said.
Washington Homes is not liable for any part of the bill, she said.
I'm in no position to know who knows all the facts, but I understand the frustration of residents who feel they mattered to the popular developer only when they wrote a fat check to buy their homes. Why didn't Washington Homes, known for building affordable, starter communities, reach out at the first sign of trouble?
BGE turned off Meadowbrook's streets lights once before in April, but the community association paid $4,700 as a show of good faith that it would try to work out a payment plan for the balance. The company turned the lights back on a week later, but the negotiations to work out a payment schedule ultimately failed.
Here's another question that nags me: Why wasn't BGE more aggressive in collecting the debt before it grew to more than $14,000?
Brenda Pettigrew, a spokeswoman for BGE, said the company knew about the dispute between the home owners and Washington Homes and wanted to give the two parties time to iron out their differences. "As a testament to our patience, we tried to work with them, especially since this was a public safety issue," she said.
That's admirable, but the cynic in me suspects something else: That the electric company just winked at the debt because the name of Washington Homes was on the contract.
Meadowbrook residents aren't off the hook, either. The association has been unable to come up with a plan that is acceptable to BGE because it has little money in its budget to pay toward the debt. Only about half of the residents are current on their dues.
The association is trying to collect about $20,000 from the slackers in their community who are delinquent.
But there is good news.
Washington Homes has offered to pay part of the $10,000 debt that remains, though officials say they are not legally obligated to do so.
"It's really important to us that these home owners don't think we're leaving them high and dry," said Ailiff, the attorney. "This is just an unfortunate situation."
When I broke the news to Thomas, she was shocked.
"I think what Washington Homes is trying to do is buffet itself against public criticism," she said. "They could have said this in 1996. . . . Suddenly, one call from the press, and they're willing to negotiate."
If Thomas is as smart as she seems, she and the other officers would sit down with Washington Homes and do just that.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Thomas thinks the developer should be responsible for part of the debt.
CAPTION: LaVonn Reedy Thomas, of Meadowbrook Home Owners Association, shows unpaid electric bills.