TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners took a stern line Wednesday with the Regent, admonishing the Riverview events center's board and threatening legal action.
Skeptical that the Regent needed seven years to repay its $35,000 debt to the county, commissioners demanded to see monthly income statements to determine what payments the center could afford.
"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," said Commissioner Victor Crist, prompting a joke from the officials' dais about being "our next Godfather."
A county audit had deemed the disputed $35,000 as misspent, out of $2.5 million given from the county's community investment tax fund. The Regent received nearly $7 million in local, state and federal money for construction.
Commissioners voted unanimously to send a detailed letter requesting financial statements to the Regent's embattled board, known as the Brandon Community Advantage Center. In a 5-2 vote, they decided to look at legal options if the center failed to make good on the payment. Commissioners Ken Hagan and Les Miller voted 'no.'
They also suggested adding interest or assessing bills annually based on the Regent's income.
Every commissioner except Mark Sharpe lashed out at the Regent for the seven-year repayment proposal.
"This is taxpayer money," Commissioner Sandra Murman said. "It's not yours."
Last year's audit of the Regent led the county to acknowledge a lapse in watchfulness of government money. It changed procedures for administering public funds to nonprofits.
The county is trying to recoup the sum on principle, Crist said, needling the Regent's board for its "arrogance." The boardroom applauded.
"I guess you caught me off guard," said the Regent's chair, David Lemar Jr. "I don't really know what to say."
He offered to provide the center's most recent audit. But instead of addressing concerns about financial transparency — a certified public accountant, Lemar refuses to publicize all the center's finances and thinks the $35,000 was appropriately used — he emotionally touted the board's volunteer efforts.
Lemar was disappointed and felt he was treated inappropriately by Crist, he later told the Tampa Bay Times. The Regent's board reached out to every commissioner this year to work out issues but only some responded, Lemar said.
The Regent operates "about break-even," he said. He expressed some reluctance to dip into operating reserves of about $50,000 to erase the debt.
Commissioners asked to revisit the payment at its next meeting on July 18.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.