Commissioner Murman quoted in this Tribune article on the Regent:

Hillsborough commissioners want Regent to disclose financial records

By RAY REYES | The Tampa Tribune
Published: June 02, 2011



Hillsborough County commissioners want to take a closer look into not only how taxpayers’ money contributed to the construction of The Regent but also how profits from the opulent structure in Riverview are used.

“I’d like to know the financial flows of how those funds are used and how those monies are accounted for,” Commissioner Kevin Beckner said of the rental fees charged by The Regent. “There were public funds used to construct this. I think it’s absolutely appropriate we ask this.”

Commissioners voted unanimously for the Clerk of the Court to conduct an audit and assessment on The Regent and the Brandon nonprofit that runs the building at 6437 Watson Road.

The audit would delve into the financial records of the nonprofit Brandon Community Advantage Center and trace how $2.5 million from the county’s Community Investment Tax was used to build The Regent.

Another $3.9 million came from state and federal grants.

How various county departments approved the project during its development will also be part of the audit and assessment. Dan Pohto, the clerk’s audit director, told commissioners he would report back to the board with his findings in about 90 days.

“We need a clear process,” Commissioner Sandy Murman said of approving CIT funds. “Maybe an accountability check-off sheet. I do believe the process and management of CIT money is really an issue here.”

The $2.5 million in county money for The Regent was initially approved by commissioners in 2008. The issue was a consent agenda item, which is a long list of items that the commission usually votes on as a package without a public hearing.

Beckner said the information he and the board was given at the time was that The Regent could be used as a hurricane shelter and a community center for Brandon.

Commissioner Les Miller said today that that kind of oversight must stop.

“This was placed on the consent agenda, which just flew through this body,” he said. “We have to do better.”

At the meeting today, Pohto provided commissioners with a copy of the scope of service between the county and the Brandon nonprofit regarding how the tax money would be used.

The agreement listed only that the $2.5 million from the county would be used for construction costs.

“I don’t see anything about it being a hurricane shelter,” Pohto said. “That came after the fact.”

Miller said the document left him baffled.

“This is the scope of service?” Miller said. “Is this supposed to outline what this building is supposed to be?”

The nonprofit that runs The Regent has come under fire from commissioners and other community leaders for not being accessible as a community center.

Although funded with public dollars, The Regent’s upper floor is rented for lavish banquets, wedding receptions and parties with rental fees of up to $4,250. Hillsborough Community College uses space on the building’s lower floor for classrooms.

State Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, said her office had fielded complaints from groups and organizations who wanted to rent out rooms at The Regent, but the fees were too high.

A local Boy Scout troop was told a $700 fee was needed to hold a two-hour event on a Tuesday night and a women’s counseling group was asked to pay $3,000 to use the building for a few hours, Burgin said.

County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham asked County Administrator Mike Merrill earlier this month to investigate how county money was spent on a building that boasts a 10,000-square-foot ballroom with hardwood floors, 20-foot tall ceilings with chandeliers, grand staircase and outdoor terrace. Commissioners later expanded the investigation and asked the Clerk of the Court to conduct an audit.

Before Merrill was appointed county administrator, he was director of a county department that approved the business plan for The Regent. The plan outlined the extravagant high-end details of the buildings and how its upper floor would be rented for private events.

Merrill said he had one person in the department who reviewed all the business plans and the purpose of the plan was to “look at the operation feasibility of a project. Could the nonprofit that was proposing the project afford to operate it? He would focus on that and nothing else.”

The business plan said the nonprofit estimated $444,750 in revenue in the first year of operation. The plan did not include a commitment for private money to help pay for the building and its furnishings. Neither did it mention a commitment for community programs.

Merrill said the Debt Management Department, which reviewed the business plan, was not interested in design or engineering.

“”It’s really a situation where the scope is limited to looking at feasibility of operation,” he said.

The Brandon nonprofit has since outlined a six-step plan to make The Regent more accessible to the public.

The steps include the creation of a task force of local community leaders to provide input on programming and outreach, revamping The Regent’s rental prices and contacting groups across eastern Hillsborough County to offer the building as a possible venue and ask what their needs are.