UPDATE: Colonial Real Estate Property Management, Sales and Investments, Inc., is no longer prohibited to be used by soldiers, according to Fort Hood officials.
A Harker Heights property rental agency was blacklisted by Fort Hood officials after "long-standing, unfair commercial business practices" directed at those in uniform.
Colonial Real Estate Property Management, Sales and Investments, Inc., is off-limits to active-duty service members at Fort Hood and they are prohibited from signing lease or property management contracts after Thursday, according to a memo signed recently by Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, III Corps and Fort Hood acting senior mission commander.
The business is owned and operated by Patsy and John Cooney and is located at 580 E. Central Texas Expressway in Harker Heights. Post officials stressed that the company was not to be confused with ERA Colonial Real Estate and its affiliated property management company, Colonial Residential Properties Inc.
ERA Colonial is located at 777 Indian Trail in Harker Heights, and is owned by Dennis and Cheryl Dewine.
Colonial Real Estate and ERA Colonial are located across the street from one another, but are not affiliated.
ERA Colonial's Better Business Bureau has an A rating. Colonial Real Estate has a D- rating, according to the bureau's website.
Better Business Bureau ratings
The bureau rates businesses on a scale of A+ to F, with F being a "total failure," said Richard Kitterman, executive director of the Better Business Bureau serving Central and Southcentral Texas.
Grades represent the bureau's degree of confidence that businesses are operating in good-faith efforts to resolve customer concerns filed with the bureau, he added.
The bureau looks into a number of factors during a 36-month period to determine a grade. It changes monthly as new complaints are entered and drop out of the period.
Some factors include number of complaints, whether the complaint was resolved, advertising issues and whether the bureau has a clear understanding of the business.
Colonial Real Estate received 43 complaints during a 36-month period. Two of the complaints where not resolved, and the company failed to resolve underlying causes of a pattern of complaints, according to information from the bureau's website listing reasons for the rating.
"Consumers allege Colonial Property Management Sales and Investments Inc. applies excessive charges for cleaning and damages, fails to refund deposits and continues to charge rent to military personnel after they are deployed or transferred," the website stated. "Consumers further allege the business fails to provide substantiation for these charges."
Information from the bureau said the company responds by citing the Servicemember Civil Relief Act, lease agreements and contending that they must enforce these terms precisely on behalf of the property owners.
Company officials also indicated to the bureau they provided itemized bills and pictures from the inspection of the properties, and that amounts charged for repairs and cleaning come from the contractors hired to complete the necessary repairs and cleaning.
The Army responds
The Better Business Bureau's findings are similar to those of the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board and Off-Installation Liaison and Operations.
The Fort Hood memo cited what it called "concerns and questionable business practices" by Colonial Property Management. They included:
Charging prospective tenants large up-front fees before signing leases, which were kept by the company if the tenant didn't sign a lease. That was used to coerce tenants into accepting lease terms they might typically refuse.
Charging tenants excessive and often unnecessary cleaning and damage fees to keep security deposits and often charging more.
Failing to make efforts to alleviate damages when tenants vacate before the leases end, and extending repair and cleaning time and charging leaving tenants pro-rated rent.
Assessing excessive charges to tenants with pets.
"What the Better Business Bureau found didn't contradict what the Army agency saw," Kitterman said.
Establishing off-limits areas may be used by commanders "to help maintain good order and discipline, health, morale, safety and welfare of service personnel," according to Army Regulation 190-24, which outlines the purpose of Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Boards and Off-Installation Liaison and Operations.
They can also be established to prevent personnel "from being exposed to or victimized by crime-conducive conditions," read the regulation.
Deeming a business off-limits is a multi-step process. Installation commanders must attempt to correct issues through the assistance of civic leaders or officials, boards must send written notices to the business owners and operators in which they specify a reasonable time for corrections to be made and those individuals are given the opportunity to interact with the board.
If another investigation shows that no changes were made, the board can declare a business off-limits, according to the regulation.
The intent of the restriction is not to punish property owners or renters who do business with Colonial Property Management, Fort Hood's memo read. The board's decision in the Colonial Real Estate issue was made after several months of deliberation.
"The purpose of the off-limits restriction is to protect service members from unfair commercial practices that have the potential to cause undue hardship for consumers," the memo read.
Those who have owner or renter contracts with Colonial Real Estate can maintain those until they expire or for as long as they choose to remain at the property.
"We expect Colonial Property Management to continue to fulfill their responsibility under existing leases and we are hopeful that questionable business practices will cease in the future," read the memo.
An ongoing process
A spot on the off-limits list isn't permanent. Colonial Property Management may lose that status if it shows responsible and significant improvements in its practices, read Fort Hood's memo.
Kitterman said that Patsy Cooney has contacted the Better Business Bureau in recent weeks and is in the process of trying to remedy its complaints. Cooney is interested in resolving the outstanding issues, Kitterman added.
The Cooneys declined to comment about the bureau's rating and Fort Hood's off-limits designation, referring questions to their attorney.
"Obviously, they disagree with the Fort Hood decision," Robert Alex Bass, of Michalk, Batty and Alcozer, said of the Cooneys. "We are currently petitioning to remove that submission, and we hope it just a matter of time."
Michalk, Batty and Alcozer has already represented Colonial Property Management in one hearing with the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board. Bass said a proposal is being prepared to get the company removed from Fort Hood's off-limits status.
"They are taking the appropriate measures to resolve this," he added.
This is an ongoing process, said Chris Haug, III Corps and Fort Hood spokesman. Colonial Real Estate can turn things around, but as its business practices stand, it is off-limits to Fort Hood service members, he added.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547. Staff writer Mason Canales contributed to this report.
For more information
For questions about Colonial Property Management's off-limits designation, contact Fort Hood's Client Services Office, Legal Assistance at (254) 287-7901, (254) 287-3199 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The office is located on post at 72nd Street and Santa Fe Avenue in Building 4617.