TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman lit into the head of the agency that runs Raymond James Stadium this summer.
The Tampa Sports Authority hadn't cut enough spending amid public calls for tax relief, Norman said. He wanted salaries frozen and travel slashed.
"People out here are — in our community are absolutely — they're dying," Norman said at a July budget workshop. "They're getting kicked out of their houses. I mean, this is tough."
One thing Norman didn't suggest cutting: His access to the Sports Authority's luxury suite during football games at Raymond James. There, Norman and select community big shots gather each fall weekend to watch Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games in style.
They recline in red and pewter leather chairs in climate-controlled comfort. If they don't like the action on the field, they can catch other games on 10 high-definition, flat-panel televisions.
They dine on baby back ribs, Asian lettuce wraps, soda and Heineken. Last year, they rang up a nearly $14,000 food and beverage tab — $1,556 for the preseason opener alone. Norman claimed tickets for every game.
Who picked up the catering bill? The taxpayers.
Norman said the cost is justified as a marketing tool for the county. The suite is used to boost community relations and economic development, he said.
As the County Commission's representative on the Sports Authority, he has invited leaders from MacDill Air Force Base. Last weekend, he said, he invited two top officials with Busch Gardens and Sea World.
"What I'm thinking is we need to keep that relationship going, particularly with the sale of (Busch Gardens parent Anheuser-Busch)," Norman said. "I'm trying to have them in the suite to show that. I don't look at it as my personal entertainment box."
But a review of tickets to the suite last season leads to the question: What marketing?
The suite holds 36 people each game. But three dozen is the total number of guests, not including spouses, that Sports Authority members entertained over the entire 11 games last year. Many of those guests were repeats.
A half-dozen or more tickets went unused at many games.
The biggest beneficiaries are Sports Authority members themselves, most seldom missing a game, along with former board members. Two county commissioners who aren't on the Sports Authority are regulars as well.
Commissioner Ken Hagan reserved tickets to eight games. Kevin White netted tickets to half the regular season home games.
Hagan said he believes his attendance is overstated on lists maintained by the Sports Authority. He already owns club-level season tickets and said he believes he caught all or part of perhaps four games in the suite.
When he does take tickets, he said it's mainly to welcome guests on the county's behalf. And he said he helped secure suite tickets once as a raffle prize of sorts for a library program.
"Certainly I think it should be used in that fashion," Hagan said, adding that he doesn't eat the food when he's there.
White didn't return a phone call seeking comments.
Tampa City Council member Gwen Miller, the city's representative on the Sports Authority last season, invited the same couple three times. Miller was on a taxpayer-funded trip to Tampa's sister city in Spain this week and was not available for comments.
At least one Sports Authority member, Tampa appointee Kalyn Brandewie, said the board could do better at expanding its invite list. And she agreed the catering tab is hard to rationalize.
Hillsborough residents paid for the $165-million Raymond James Stadium, built in 1996 and now owned by the county. The Sports Authority runs it, though almost all profits go to the Bucs.
City and county taxpayers cover millions annually in operating deficits, upkeep and upgrades, including those flat-panel TVs in the 196 suites.
One tradeoff is that the Bucs give the Sports Authority the suite, with an estimated $140,000 value.
The 11-member Sports Authority board of directors is appointed by the county, the city of Tampa and the governor.
The authority board makes few decisions, with most monthly meetings lasting an hour or less.
In return, board members get at least two suite tickets to every game, and four to two games, valued at $472 apiece. If each board member uses his or her full allotment of 24 tickets — and most come close — that's worth more than $11,000 per member.
In fact, most members will spend far more hours in the suite than at governing meetings.
The St. Petersburg Times has written about this perk before. About four years ago, the Sports Authority reacted with a new policy, spelling out the tickets each member gets and that extras would be distributed to "further community relations, economic development and the like."
Food purchases were to be "limited to hot dogs, hamburgers, salads, chips, nuts, popcorn, sodas, bottled water and the like." But they sometimes have included ribs, tenderloin and key lime pie.
Under the new policy, each board member is asked to pay $100 annually toward alcohol. That covered about half the tab last year, which happens when a six-pack of Heineken is $25.50.
Little else has changed.
County appointee Vin Marchetti, a lawyer and board chairman, had 35 tickets reserved in his name last year. Like Hagan, he disputes the number, adding that if he did take extras it was when tickets would go unused.
He noted that many people visit from other suites and TSA members are there to represent the agency, so he didn't think the food purchased is unreasonable.
"All I can tell you is this year we will make sure we try to invite as many people as we can to foster the goodwill and relations relative to the Sports Authority," he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.