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Lawsuit seeks delay of hotel tax report

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday afternoon, private hotel interests asked a judge to prevent Property Appraiser Ron Alderman from issuing an opinion on the tax-free status of the proposed Tampa Convention Center Hotel.

The injunction, if granted, could throw a wrench into plans to build the $140-million, 905-room hotel next to the Tampa Convention Center. City Council members are scheduled today to consider approval of the project, but have indicated they want some assurance that the hotel would enjoy exemption from taxation when built.

Legally, however, the injunction sought against Alderman's office does not rule out council action, City Attorney Thomas Gonzalez said.

"They could still postpone action, vote it down or approve it contingent upon getting Alderman's letter on the tax exemption," he said.

To boost use of the convention center, Mayor Sandy Freedman has proposed building a 25-story hotel with $141-million in bond money loaned to a private, non-profit corporation that would own the hotel and the 2.6 acres it would occupy.

Low-interest construction debt _ and exemption from local property taxes and federal income tax _ would keep operating expenses low and help guarantee the success of the convention center hotel.

Steven A. Anderson, Alderman's attorney, was working on the opinion Wednesday night. He declined to reveal what that opinion will be until he reviews it with Aldemran.

"The lawsuit doesn't affect what the property appraiser will do," Anderson said. "We will render an advisory tomorrow morning on the state of the law (regarding tax exemption) and nothing more."

But the lawsuit says it is believed that Alderman "will issue an opinion stating that the proposed hotel will be exempt from taxation when completed and in actual use."

The lawsuit asking for the injunction was brought by Hallmark Energy Inc., which owns land in Hillsborough County. The Clearwater company's principals are Daniel A. Englehardt, Steven Engelhardt and Paul D. Engelhardt, according to Florida corporate records.

Hallmark Energy is affiliated with the Holiday Inn Express Hotel at 4732 Dale Mabry Highway N, said attorney Robert V. Williams, and thus would be "directly impacted" by approval of a new hotel with major tax advantages.

The lawsuit says there is "great public interest" in granting the injunction since "nearly $150-million in revenue bonds may be issued in reliance on Alderman's opinion."

But Alderman has no constitutional authority to issue an opinion on the future tax status of the proposed hotel, the lawsuit asserts. A property appraiser may only grant tax exemptions after an appropriate application by a property owner, and no such application has been filed for the proposed hotel, according to the lawsuit.