Hillsborough commissioners may seek tax dollars lost due to 2010 BP oil spill

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners are seeking to hire a law firm to go after lost taxes resulting from the 2010 BP oil spill, hoping for a windfall in the millions of dollars.

The unanimous vote Wednesday came after commissioners heard from lawyers from a Miami-based firm pitching themselves for the job. They said the county could be owed anywhere from $2.2 million to nearly $50 million from lost tourism caused by perceptions that Florida as a whole had been spoiled by the northern Gulf of Mexico gusher.

Great idea, commissioners said, before opting 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. "There is also upside for our county residents."

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

Pinellas voted a week ago to retain the firm Colson Hicks Eidson of Coral Gables to go after some $3 million in taxes and fees the county estimates it lost due to the spill. That firm agreed to a contingency fee of 25 percent of what it gets back for Pinellas County, 5 percent more if an appeal becomes necessary.

Lawyers working with the Miami-based firm Farrell & Patel approached Beckner about two months ago saying that, while the Hillsborough shoreline was not tainted 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.

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 related to lost tourism. 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 tried 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.

In other action:

• Commissioners voted unanimously to hire the Rocklin, Calif.-based executive recruiting firm Ralph Andersen & Associates to seek and screen applicants for the county attorney vacancy. Former County Attorney Renee Lee was dismissed last June and acting County Attorney Don Odom is scheduled to retire in July.

• After getting snubbed by an advisory committee's top choice for their vacant internal auditor position, commissioners agreed to seek a headhunting firm to find applicants for that job as well. The recruiters would present a list of candidates, which would again be vetted by the audit advisory committee before a finalist is presented to commissioners. That position has been vacant since May 2010, when commissioners sacked former auditor Jim Barnes.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough commissioners may seek tax dollars lost due to 2010 BP oil spill 03/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 12:19am]

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