Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hillsborough Commissioners express outrage at Regent's payment plan

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 6:19 PM

Although the Regent Community Center in Brandon opened late in 2010, it was only last fall that investigative reporting revealed that the center cost $7 million in local, state and federal taxpayer money, and has not exactly been accessible to the Eastern Hillsborough community. That fueled anger throughout the county, especially in the Brandon area, where the high prices to rent the facility have had critics refer to it as a "Taj Mahal" for Tampa Bay.

The latest outrage for County Commissioners came Wednesday morning, when they blasted an auditor with the Regent who came before the board to explain why the Regent is only able to pay $400 a month to repay a $35,000 debt, which means it won't fully be paid back until 2019. An audit by the Clerk of the County Courts found that was the amount misspent by Regent officials, out of an original $2.5 million grant from the county.

The object of the commission's scorn was David Lemar Jr., the CPA for the Regent.

Les Miller was the first commissioner to get in Lemar's face, demanding to know the monthly income at the facility. "You're telling me you can't afford more than $400 a month for 84 months?"

The anger over the Regent carries clear political undertones.

Eastern Hillsborough County Democrat Mark Nash is running against Al Higginbotham in District 2. He called for a forensic audit, saying, "It is high noon and it's time to show some courage, it's time to to make some tough decisions about this facility that is not being used for the reasons that it was prescribed."

Critics have charged that Higginbotham served on the agency that manages the Regent, an accusation he has vehemently denied.

Commissioner Sandy Murman blasted Regent officials for their unwillingness to provide the board with any financial information. "We have gotten no cooperation, " she complained, adding that she was "a little insulted" by the payment plan that would require seven years for the County to become whole.

She said the Regent should have at least one community event per month at no charge to the community to use the facility.

Victor Crist, facing an intra-party challenger in Tea Party member Sharon Calvert, unloaded on Lemar Jr., telling him he should consider himself lucky if the county opts to engage in a payment plan with the Regent.

"You owe us $35,000. If we're willing to do a payment schedule, it's on our terms. And you know what? If that's not good enough, then we'll see you in court," he said.

Saying he was "embarrassed" by what has transpired, Crist said he recalls when he was in the Florida Senate when funding for a community center in Brandon was initially discussed. He said he believed it was going to be more of a catered meeting hall, not what it has turned out to be. Comparing it to the University Area Community Center Complex that he's been closely associated with, Crist said the reason the complex can afford to offer reasonable rates for people is because they do fundraising.

After the beatdown, Lemar Jr. admitted he didn't know how to begin to respond. He said that Regent staff had made attempts to meet separately with each commissioner, but some have declined to meet. "I'm disappointed that I got sideswiped," he said.

The board then voted 5-2 to have the Regent turn over more relevant financial documents before settling on a final payment plan, as well as have the county attorney determine with legal authority the BOCC has over the Regent's board.

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