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Hillsborough may hire law firm to seek money for BP oil spill



Hillsborough County commissioners listened to a pitch from lawyers Wednesday who told them they may qualify for settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill and asked to represent them.

The county could be eligible for millions in reimbursements for lost taxes on everything from hotel room night stays to cigarettes -- anywhere from $2.2 million to nearly $50 million.

Good idea, commissioners said, before voting unanimously to seek bids for the legal work.

"There is nothing here for the county to lose," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who invited the lawyers to speak. 

Any firm hired would be asked to work on a contingency basis, meaning they'll get paid only if they manage to collect a reimbursement for the county. They would get paid a percentage of the recovery and bids would be judged partly on how large a cut the firms seek.

Pinellas County voted a week ago to retain the firm Colson Hicks Eidson of Coral Gables to go after some $3 million is taxes and fees it estimates it lost due to the spill in the upper Gulf of Mexico. That firm agreed to a contingency fee of 25 percent of what it gets back for Pinellas County.

Lawyers working with the Miami-based firm Farrell & Patel approached Beckner about two months ago saying that, while the Hillsborough shoreline was not slicked by tar balls, it may have nevertheless suffered losses. State tourism officials, who are also seeking money from the disaster, contend Florida generally suffered from perceptions that its shorelines were fouled, causing potential visitors to schedule vacations elsewhere.

In any disaster, "it's not just ground zero that is affected economically," lawyer Wesley J. Farrell told commissioners Wednesday.

He presented commissioners with figures showing that BP has paid more than 8,000 claims emanating out of Hillsborough County by private property owners and businesses, totaling $75.6 million.

Frederick Kuykendall III, a lawyer originally from Alabama who has joined forces with Farrell & Patel, said the perception is that BP has settled all claims. But he said the process to seek redress, particularly for governments, is ongoing.

"What we want you to do is hire us," Kuykendall said.

He said the firm has retained accountants and other financial experts adept at isolating tax declines relating to lost tourism from general tax hits caused by the ailing economy. The firm was recommending that the county submit a claim rather than file a lawsuit.

It provided an initial analysis that estimates the county may have lost as much as $2.2 million in tourist taxes -- charged to people who stay in hotel rooms -- alone. Other taxes on things ranging from car rentals to alcohol and cigarette taxes could drive the figure much higher.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said his staff has not attempted to craft a thorough estimate of taxes lost due to the spill.

While commissioners said they appreciated the presentation, they said they felt it was necessary to seek bids for the work in the interest of transparency.

"It's the right way to do business," said Commissioner Les Miller.

[Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 6:17pm]


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