Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

TIA board votes to give Lopano $500,000 bonus if he stays five years

TAMPA — Joe Lopano gave his word, and now he's going to be rewarded.

His bosses, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's governing board, voted 4-1 at Thursday morning's meeting to approve a new contract and a new deferred compensation package for Lopano, 58.

If he stays at Tampa International Airport for the next five years, Lopano will get a bonus of $500,000.

No more rumors, Lopano promised. He's committed to TIA for the next five years.

"I hope you like me," he said. "Because I'm going to be here a while."

The bonus is on top of Lopano's annual $315,000 salary plus benefits. His old contract didn't expire until 2016, and last year he got two raises and two extensions.

But under the new contract, after each year, he'll be credited $100,000. He has to stay the five years to be vested — and then collect the entire paycheck in 2018. In other words, if Lopano leaves for another job before the five years are up, he gets none of the $500,000.

But there are provisions in the contract that would allow him to collect part of that if he's disabled on the job, or is let go under certain circumstances. He can still get raises, too. However, there's no noncompete clause in the contract, which was discussed last month.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the board, complained about the money at the last meeting. But on Thursday, he had two new complaints.

First, the contract limits the board's ability to fire Lopano without cause. Second, the mayor said the new contract doesn't even accomplish its main purpose: keeping Lopano here.

"There is nothing in this contract that gives us this security," Buckhorn said, "other than Joe looking at this pot of money and hoping he doesn't want to go."

"That's pretty much it," said board member Robert Watkins, who negotiated the deal with Lopano.

Board Chairman Steve Burton reopened the issue of Lopano's contract at the March 1 meeting, concerned about rumors that other airports might try to lure their CEO away.

Lopano's former employer, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, is looking for a new CEO, and his name has been floated there as a replacement by the local media. Lopano has gotten some calls from friends there, too, but no one has asked him to officially apply.

Buckhorn vociferously objected at the last meeting, saying Lopano was already being paid enough, that he should carry out his current contract, and then be rewarded.

But Burton, who participated by phone, seemed to have the votes when the topic came up Thursday. Watkins led the negotiations, and Dr. Joseph Diaco seemed concerned about losing Lopano.

The wild card was Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who seemed to swing back and forth during the meeting. He wanted Lopano to stick around long enough to implement the first phase of the airport's new master plan, which is scheduled for completion by 2017. The board also approved the $2.5 billion plan Thursday.

"So this is an all-or-nothing deal?" Crist said. "So there's an incentive here, there's a carrot being put in front of him. So if you stay, you get to keep this. If you leave, you lose it. And if we terminate you somewhere along the line, you only get what you earned, nothing more?

"So this is an incentive to facilitate his outstanding performance to get this new master plan done. Brilliant."

But then Crist said he shared the mayor's concerns — a contract is a contract, and Lopano was already under contract. Crist said this contract must end the rumors about the CEO leaving.

"I need to know if we go through this today," Crist said. "There will be no B.S. today. I need to hear it from Joe."

Lopano seemed to bristle at Crist's acronym. But he answered the question.

"You have my commitment," Lopano said.

Then Crist voted to give Lopano a new contract and the $500,000 bonus.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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