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We're all paying for the famous burgers

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002

Joe Elizarde's now-famous New Year's Day lunch would have cost him about 8 bucks, had he ever received it. That meal has cost all of us a whole lot more.

For nearly a month, a host of public employees have been dealing with the dust-up at the Happy Dayz Diner in Inverness that ended with the restaurant owner being arrested and Elizarde losing his job as police chief. Guess who is paying the bill for all of those lost hours?

And the meter is still running. The chief resigned this week, but he'll be paid through the end of the month (he has been on a paid administrative leave since Jan. 4). City Manager Frank DiGiovanni has told city attorney Denise Lyn to stop her investigation, but with the restaurant's owners threatening a lawsuit, her work is not over.

If that suit is filed and a judgment is issued against the city for damages or if a financial settlement is worked out, even more public dollars could change hands. It's unlikely the owners would settle for $8. Either way, it's going to cost the taxpayers more money in legal fees to defend the case.

Attempting to put a dollar amount on how much taxpayers have spent on this case is more art than science. No one has kept a specific logbook, and it's difficult to say exactly how much time any one employee has spent dealing with the burger flap.

But here are some details to consider:

DiGiovanni said last week that, very conservatively, each of the five employees at City Hall has spent on average an hour and a half each business day in January on this issue. Using that formula, that would put the cost to Inverness taxpayers at a minimum of $2,370.

City Hall records show they've received 78 phone calls about the incident, and each call takes time to handle, time taken away from other city matters. That does not include, of course, all of the people who have walked in to City Hall to bend DiGiovanni's ear.

Nor does it include the periodic calls to DiGiovanni from council members wanting updates or the calls from all kinds of media (from the local papers to Tampa Bay television stations and radio stations throughout Florida).

Dealing with this flap has stolen staff time from a variety of issues such as negotiations with the Public Employees Union; preparing the city budget for 2003; and developing plans for parks, whose state funding comes with deadlines attached.

"It's something that definitely affected our outlook and our ability to get anything done other than deal with that," DiGiovanni said. "A lot of stuff we do requires research, analytical thought, reducing an item to paper, conveying information. You were constantly interrupted. You couldn't seem to get anywhere."

With Elizarde on the sidelines for a month, the Inverness Police Department also was affected. Lt. Lee Alexander stepped up to become interim chief, leading to a domino effect on other police officers, who had to assume other duties. All of that costs money, too.

Then there is city attorney Lyn. She has not tallied up her hours yet, but her contract calls for the first five hours of her time to be covered under her monthly $2,000 retainer. She bills at $125 for every hour after that.

If you don't live within the city limits, cheer up. You're not being left out.

Assistant State Attorney Lisa Herndon estimated that she has spent between five and six hours working on the hamburger case. Two other attorneys in her office spent about two days each interviewing witnesses for the investigation, which concluded that no criminal charges should be filed against diner owner Butch Ramsey.

Herndon wouldn't estimate how much money the office has spent investigating the arrest, saying, "It's part of our job to do things like this." For comparison, though, she noted that most private attorneys bill about $150 an hour.

As an aside, the report prepared by the State Attorney's Office makes for very familiar reading. The investigators spoke to the same people who had been interviewed earlier by the local press, and their comments were the same as had been reported. That punctures the theory espoused by some residents that the "irresponsible media" has slanted the details of the incident to paint Elizarde in a bad light.

All of this, of course, doesn't include the financial costs to the Ramseys. From bail money to lost hours at their business to legal fees, they are out a substantial sum as well.

There are any number of related costs -- the time Ramsey spent at the jail after his arrest, the costs to the city of advertising for and hiring a new police chief -- but you get the idea.

As people debate the merits of this matter, it's important to keep in mind that the ripple effects go far beyond the embarrassment this incident has brought to Inverness and Citrus County in general.

Many people have said that this incident is just plain silly and a waste of time. They're right about that.

But when government is involved, even wacky episodes like this cost taxpayers. Elizarde's tantrum over his Big Bopper burgers has cost all of us a lot of bucks.

-- Staff writers Bridget Hall Grumet and Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

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