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Tampa, THAP severing all ties

The city assumes some financial liabilities from the nonprofit, but leaders say they are eager to see an end to the turmoil.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 10, 2002

TAMPA -- It could cost taxpayers more than $800,000 to end the troubled relationship between Tampa City Hall and the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, a nonprofit agency that once promised to help the city redevelop low-income neighborhoods.

The president of THAP signed an agreement Thursday that would sever business deals with the city once and for all.

The City Council still must approve the deal next week.

"I am not happy at all, but I want to get out," City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda said Thursday. "I want to get the divorce."

The agreement would end a marriage between the city and THAP that began years ago with the promise of revitalizing neglected neighborhoods.

With the city's financial backing, THAP bought more than 150 lots, including a cigar factory in West Tampa, a school building in Ybor City and a warehouse in the Channel District. THAP was supposed to turn the vacant properties into low-income homes and provide housing for veterans and HIV patients.

But it didn't work out that way.

Critics say THAP's former chief, Chester M. Luney, used the nonprofit to do favors for former city housing chief Steve LaBrake.

Luney paid more than $24,000 to move an old concrete block house for LaBrake's girlfriend, a city employee who worked for LaBrake at City Hall.

Luney also arranged to have a pool dug at the couple's South Tampa house at no cost, and signed a lease -- which he said he never read -- for McCarter's Riverview home, which helped her get a mortgage on the home where she and LaBrake now live.

With his position in the city, LaBrake helped THAP get millions from the city in grants and financial backing.

Both men have now lost their jobs and could face criminal charges from a federal grand jury.

In the agreement signed Thursday, the city will purchase 123 properties from THAP and assume more than $5.6-million in payments.

City Attorney Jim Palermo said the city expects to sell the lots to other developers at a profit.

The city also will get out of its promise to cover any missed payments for 32 lots that THAP will keep. THAP essentially will buy out the city's financial backing on the property, saving taxpayers a potential liability of $407,385 if THAP defaulted on payments.

"This is almost like getting a divorce," Palermo said. "It gets us where I think we want to be -- and we move on."

The city agreed to pay THAP development fees and other costs totaling about $472,000 for maintaining the city-backed properties. Taxpayers will pay $150,000 for audits that THAP was supposed to submit but didn't.

The city also agreed to pay THAP $188,218 for "community revitalization services" that included mowing lots, and another $27,500 for work on a "neighborhood action team."

THAP agreed to pay a delinquent water bill of $11,767.

Miranda said he didn't like the deal's terms but felt he had to accept it.

"Time is money," Miranda said. "I would rather get this behind me, and get these properties turned over to productivity and get them turned over to taxpayers."

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