TAMPA — The moment the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority long feared came to pass Thursday: a bidding war for popular Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano.
Except it was the board members who outbid each other to give Lopano his annual raise.
The bidding stopped at a 5 percent pay increase of $16,537. The board voted 3-0 to raise Lopano's annual salary to $347,287 starting Oct. 1.
"I just want to say thank you to the board and the support you've always given me since I got here," Lopano said. "This community has accepted me from the day I got here. And not just the board but the leadership of Tampa."
Two leaders missed the vote: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, the only elected officials on the board.
The mayor was on vacation. Crist, who is for up re-election in November, said that he had to be out-of-town on government business.
The board recently gave Lopano sterling grades in his annual performance evaluation. The CEO got an average score of 4.82 out of a maximum grade of 5. Lopano was graded in 14 categories on that 1-to-5 scale. He also got a total score from each board member.
He got perfect scores of 70 from board chairman Robert Watkins and board member Gary Harrod. The mayor gave Lopano a 68.
Crist gave the CEO his lowest score this year: a 62.
"Yes, I probably would have voted for a raise based on his performance," Crist told the Tampa Bay Times. "I think Joe Lopano overall has done well in his position and exceeded expectations."
But, Crist added: "There's room for improvement in some areas and he's assured me he will set new standards in the next 12 months."
Watkins, who proposed Lopano's 5 percent raise last year, started off Thursday's discussion by proposing a 4 percent raise.
"I think that everyone knows that I think Joe's done an outstanding job by all accounts," Watkins said. "Tampa International Airport continues to be regarded higher and higher each year."
But 4 percent wasn't enough for Harrod. He cited Lopano's role in shaping the $943 million master plan to expand and upgrade the airport by 2017; and getting the state to pony up $194 million for that plan.
"I would respectfully request that we raise it to 5 percent," Harrod said.
"Well I wouldn't object," Watkins said.
Then it was Sam Rashid's turn. The prominent Hillsborough GOP power broker was just appointed and didn't get to grade Lopano. Thursday was also his first board meeting.
Rashid has had limited dealings with Lopano but still praised him. Rashid also said that he would demand more than Lopano's current salary of $330,750 to do the CEO's job.
"It's a good chunk of change," Rashid said. "But I wouldn't do it for that. It's a big headache."
So Rashid joined the other two board members in voting for the raise. Because there were only three members at Thursday's meeting, each vote had to be unanimous to pass.
Lopano's salary increases, contract extensions and merit raises have been an issue since he took over the airport in 2011. Last year the board also set up a $500,000 bonus plan to keep Lopano through 2018 and avoid a bidding war with other airports.
But his compensation has grown less and less controversial. That may be because Lopano has fulfilled his primary mission at TIA: increasing international connections by adding nonstops to Cuba, Switzerland and Panama.
In June, TIA added a nonstop to Seattle, its first direct connection to the Pacific Northwest, and on Thursday announced an additional nonstop to Los Angeles.
Last year, the Airports Council International also ranked TIA as the third-best airport in North America and the third-best airport serving 15-25 million passengers in the world.
Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.