TAMPA — Hillsborough County is broadening its review of how money was spent to build a community center near Brandon that some describe as posh and inaccessible to the public.
County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham had previously asked for an explanation of whether public money was inappropriately used to pay a pair of consultants for the project. He also has asked for an accounting of spending on some of the finer touches at what is known as the Regent, from its marble exterior to statues inside.
Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday for a fuller review of how $2.5 million in county sales tax money was spent on the Regent and whether it was appropriate. Higginbotham's questions still stand, but the county administration also is now supposed to report on whether the privately run hall and how it got built comply with county rules.
That includes determining whether there was any reporting system put in place to ensure tax dollars were spent appropriately.
Some commissioners, notably Sandra Murman, wondered whether steps should be taken to ensure that the county gets a return on its investment. She noted that news accounts have depicted that the center is charging high fees for weddings and banquets.
But Commissioner Mark Sharpe prevailed in arguing that the county first needs to get a handle on what led to this point.
"To me, before you can correct a problem, you've got to know what's happened," he said.
The Regent in Riverview opened in January after years of campaigning by area residents who argued the need for a place for special events and community groups in eastern Hillsborough. Construction money for the $7 million, 30,000-square-foot building came from the state, Hillsborough Community College, the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The federal money was provided because the building can double as a disaster shelter, even though questions have been raised about the need for one in that immediate vicinity.
HCC, which has classrooms on the ground floor, owns the Regent and covers some operating expenses.
A nonprofit group, the Brandon Community Advantage Center Inc., is in charge of staffing and maintaining the parts not dedicated to the school, costs that are supposed to be covered by charging fees to use it.
Since the opening, some residents and county officials have questioned whether the building is too extravagant by government standards, from the marble facade and stately columns to the grand staircase and ballroom.
But the largest outcry has come from community groups that say they can't get access to a building the public paid for without paying exorbitant fees.
The fees, starting at $850 to rent one of the smaller rooms on weeknights and running into the thousands for other parts of the building, prompted Murman to ask whether the county should get a cut.
That question may be explored later.
Commissioner Les Miller, participating in the meeting by phone as he recovers from back surgery, said he also will ask that future awards of cash be made in a more visible fashion.
Miller said that the initial award of construction dollars for the Regent was approved as part of a list of projects vetted through a public hearing. But he noted that when it was time to hand the money over, the expense was approved as part of the commission's consent agenda, a group of items sometimes numbering more than 100 that is approved en masse with little discussion.
Miller has called for a future board discussion on whether to place a cap on the value of expenditures that can be approved on the consent agenda.