TAMPA — The chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission is asking for an investigation of what he called questionable spending for a new suburban community center.
Al Higginbotham wants to know whether county tax money that is supposed to be spent on construction paid for consultants, lawyers and taxes for the Riverview center known as the Regent. He also wants an accounting of why tax money was spent on seeming luxuries, such as statues, a marble facade and wood flooring at the $7 million community center that opened in January.
Higginbotham said he was told by one of the consultants before the project was built that private donations would cover the more posh touches. So he is asking whether the county staff did an adequate job of oversight on the facility, which is supposed to double as a backup hurricane shelter.
"I'm very concerned as to what's going on here," Higginbotham said Wednesday. "I hope it's an accounting error. I can only assume the worst."
At least one other commissioner is questioning why the community center appears to be getting used largely for private events — such as weddings — rather than serving the residents who paid for it.
A lawyer for the private board that oversees the Regent said all aspects of the project were open to public scrutiny. He is reviewing the spending, but said at first blush, money was spent as agreed upon with the state and county.
But Marshall Rainey acknowledged that center operators need to do a better job of making it regularly available to nonprofits and community groups at a reasonable cost.
"That's absolutely a fair criticism," Rainey said. "The board was keenly aware of that" and was taking steps to address it before commissioners started questioning the project.
Brandon business leaders have been campaigning for years for a community center that could hold large public and private events. In January, they got their wish: A 30,000-square-foot, two-story gathering spot that also houses Hillsborough Community College classrooms and can serve as an emergency shelter.
Former state Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, got the project rolling in 2006 by securing $2 million in state money. Another $1.3 million came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, given its use as a shelter. HCC kicked in more.
Higginbotham is most concerned about $2.5 million in sales tax money the county contributed a couple of years later.
County records suggest some of the money was used to pay consultants, including Ron Pierce, a former aide to Lee, and Earl Lennard, currently the Hillsborough elections supervisor. Further, those quarterly spending reports also indicate that the county's community investment tax — which is for building things, not running them — covered legal bills and taxes as well.
Rainey said some consulting costs came from the tax, but not those paid to Pierce and Lennard. They were paid $99,000 and $44,000, respectively — Pierce with HCC money and Lennard with state dollars.
Pierce succeeded Lennard as project manager when Lennard became the county's elections supervisor in 2009. Both helped put together grant applications and served as community liaisons.
An assistant, Linda Kenney, was paid $42,000 with county community investment tax dollars, Rainey said, but he provided a county e-mail spelling out the Regent's board could pay for planning and design.
The venue opened in January with a VIP reception, with guests including Lee and Higginbotham. With its white columns and marble facade, the Regent is "a pedestal for our community pride," Higginbotham said at the time.
Now he says he feels he was misled. Higginbotham says he was told by Pierce 18 months ago that money for the center's finer finishes — the marble, the wood floors, the statues — would come from private donations. But Rainey said the recession wrecked those plans.
"With the state of the economy, there was a dearth of private dollars to do those things," he said, noting that construction costs came in on budget.
He said supporters made no secret that they had visions of a showpiece. It's part of their business plan. The design had to be fine enough to attract wedding organizers and lavish party planners. Money from those events would pay operating costs and help offset what it takes to make the building available to smaller community groups.
Rainey said the center is solidly booked for private events.
But Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the Regent's private operators have failed to make the building more broadly available. Its website lists rental fees ranging from $850 for one of the smallest rooms on a weeknight to $4,250 for the nearly 15,000-square-foot grand ballroom on a Saturday.
The site says a 25 percent discount is available to not-for-profit groups. But Beckner said even that keeps the rates out of reach for most small groups.
"It seems to me to be evident the private purpose of this building," Beckner said. "The question is: What is the public purpose?"
Rainey said it has been the goal all along to make the Regent a community gathering spot for people of all walks. He said that will be a priority going forward.
"We'll address it," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or email@example.com.