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Pinellas to use lawyers to press oil spill claims

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County still has a $3 million bone to pick with BP over the gulf oil spill in 2010.

It's the amount the county calculates was lost, mostly in unpaid taxes and fees.

The spill never reached Pinellas beaches, but the county says its damages also include $1,300 in nixed park shelter rentals and $50,000 in cancelled golf at Airco Golf Course — links that the county shuttered as a long-running money loser last year.

The county filed claims but so far hasn't been paid. The County Commission unanimously voted to hire attorneys Tuesday on a contingency-fee basis to study and pursue its claims against the oil giant. This firm is Colson Hicks Eidson of Coral Gables.

The attorneys will not be paid unless the county wins. If so, the lawyers will receive a 25 percent cut, and 5 percent more if there's an appeal.

"I'm not counting on the fact we're going to get a lot of this money. ... If we're going to get any of this money, it's going to be down the road," said Commissioner Neil Brickfield, who called signing up the lawyers a "calculated" risk.

The county says it lost: $2 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax collections because people didn't come here and spend money, $672,000 in Pinellas' share of the standard sales tax, and $256,000 in the county's of the tax on hotel stays.

To date, the county has received $173,000 for coastal photos and other labor due to the spill.

The county also received $1.15 million for tourism promotion in a deal with the state, but the Tourist Development Council wanted $5 million more.

While the vote to hire was never in doubt, Commissioner Ken Welch questioned the size of the payout to lawyers. Commissioner Karen Seel questioned why the county didn't try to sign on with the multi-firm team that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi hired this month.

But chief assistant county attorney Dennis Long said the lawyers' cut was standard for the type of works. The firm has a New Orleans office, the hub of the multi-district lawsuits filed over the oil spill.

One of its lawyers is on a steering committee for plaintiffs in claims that do not include government agencies. That committee and BP recently reached a $7.8 billion settlement for economic losses and medical problems for people and businesses.

The firm is familiar to the county because it represents Pinellas in its long-running fight with online travel companies over how much taxes they should pay, Long said.

"They're making record profits, I don't see why not (hire lawyers). The price of gas doesn't seem to be going down." Commissioner Ken Welch said of BP.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DeCampTimes.

Pinellas to use lawyers to press oil spill claims 03/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 6:45pm]
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