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Hospital's foundation goes to court over fees // AVOIDING EVICTION

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Attorneys for the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation Inc. on Friday filed a court complaint to head off possible eviction from Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

The action was in response to an Oct. 5 letter from attorney Barbara Pankau telling the foundation, which operates the hospital, that it had 30 days to pay more than $12,000 in legal fees or risk default on its lease of the hospital property.

The fees were incurred by the Health Facilities Authority, which sublets the city-owned property to the foundation. Pankau has said the lease requires the foundation to pay the authority's legal bills.

"If we'd waited until the 30 days were up, then they (the authority) could come up and try to evict us, and we didn't want to take that chance," said Lester Garner, president of the foundation.

"No one's threatened to evict them," Mayor Anita Protos said. "This is ridiculous."

The complaint also asks the Pinellas County Circuit Court to clear up disputed parts of the lease contract, including whether the authority ought to have access to secret documents on strategic business plans, the hospital's managed-care contract and the names of foundation members, said Joe Kiefer, hospital administrator.

Friday's late-afternoon court filing surprised many.

"I was not expecting it," said Pankau, the attorney hired to advise the city on hospital issues after the city and the hospital began feuding. "I think it would have been a lot better if they just had paid the bills. Now we're going to be involved in a legal procedure that I'm not sure is necessary."

The foundation had other options if it had questions about the legal bills, she said, among them talking with her and with the authority.

"We've about run out of talk," Garner responded.

The foundation argues that the $12,000 bill falls outside the scope of its responsibility, and it is therefore refusing to pay it.

No matter how small the amount, payment would set a bad precedent, Kiefer said.

"I can see the foundation's point," said City Commissioner Cindy Domino. "If I were suing you, and I came to you and told you to pay my lawyer's fees, you'd slap my face, right?"

But the lease provides for such legal charges, said John Tarapani, chairman of the authority, which is a city-appointed board.

"It clearly outlines in four places of the lease, they are responsible for our fees in connection with enforcement and compliance of the lease," he said.

Tarapani and Garner both said they will accept the court's decision.

In fact, Garner wants to put the money for the legal bills in an escrow account to be distributed by the court. "We're trying to show good faith," he said.

Pankau said she must now meet with the authority to discuss a response to the court filing.

Meanwhile, both city and hospital officials plan to focus on their campaigns for the Nov. 14 referendum, in which voters will advise the commission on whether to sell the hospital.

The court case should have little effect on the referendum, said City Commissioner Karen Brayboy.

"It doesn't have anything to do with what we're dealing with," she said.