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Platt demands explanation for low fees

A Hillsborough County commissioner wants to know if her government violated its own rules to entice a company to relocate its business here.

Commissioner Jan Platt has asked for an explanation of the unusually low fees the county will charge Rooms To Go Inc., a discount furniture retailer planning to move its headquarters from Polk to Hillsborough County.

In a memo that cites a St. Petersburg Times article that raised questions about the fees, Platt asked County Administrator Fred Karl to explain whether the company received a break.

"I want to get to the bottom of it," Platt said Thursday. "Did they or didn't they" offer a special deal to Rooms To Go?

"I'm not going to reach that conclusion," Platt said. "But several members of the public had expressed a concern."

In a December press conference attended by top government and business leaders, Rooms To Go announced it would build a 475,000-square-foot warehouse at the intersection of State Road 579 and Interstate 4, just west of Plant City. It will employ about 275 workers.

County officials told Rooms To Go the fees for its proposed warehouse would be about $165,000, almost $300,000 less than the company itself calculated and the amount indicated by the county's own rate schedule.

The company's president, Jeffrey Seaman, cited the lower figure as one of the reasons he chose Hillsborough over Polk County.

County officials insisted the company didn't receive a break. But Platt has now joined other area developers in questioning the lower fee.

"I have been told that our impact fees are the highest in the state," Platt wrote to Karl on Wednesday. "How is it possible that in this instance our fees were lower than Lakeland and Plant City?"

Jim Bourey, senior assistant county administrator, told the Times that they based their figures upon the number of workers Rooms To Go would employ, not upon the size of the building, which is the generally accepted method.

"Where is this authorized by the ordinance?" Platt asked. "How often has this method been used in the past?"

Bourey declined to respond to Platt's questions Thursday. He said he would prepare a detailed reply.

"There is a comprehensive answer to all the questions," Bourey said. "You're dealing with significant ordinances and extensive criteria."

In response to similar questions asked by civic activist Roy G. Davis, Bourey said that other companies had received similar treatment.

But he said Thursday he did not know the names of those companies.

Since the county based its fees on the number of employees, Platt also wants to know if it calculated the impact that the trucks going in and out of the warehouse would have on the road system.

And Platt asked Karl to explain if other companies will receive similar treatment.

"If granting such requests becomes the standard procedure," Platt asked, "won't this reduce revenue and increase utility user rates?"