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Council stays out of Cory Lake Isles debate

The members abide by a state ruling that cities can't monitor community development districts.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published January 7, 2005


TAMPA - Allegations of rampant nepotism, conflicts of interest and questionable accounting in a New Tampa subdivision's taxing district were not enough to warrant an intervention by the city on behalf of the 300 homeowners who live there.

The Tampa City Council voted 6-1 on Thursday to not interfere with or monitor the management of the Cory Lake Isles community development district, which for the past 12 years has been controlled by one man: Gene Thomason.

Thomason has appointed himself, his wife and son, business partners and friends to a board that controls the spending of money collected from homeowners who live there and who pay between $2,188 to $2,923 a year in assessments and fees. Much of that money was spent on lucrative contracts that were awarded to board members, including Thomason.

It's the responsibility of homeowners to change things if they don't like how their CDDs operate, said council member Mary Alvarez.

"I don't think it's up to us," she said. "Let's leave well enough alone."

The vote thwarted Council member John Dingfelder's request for more city involvement in Cory Lake Isles, a request he made last year after reading a financial audit of the district and a story in the St. Petersburg Times .

Since then, however, the Florida Attorney General's Office issued an opinion that said cities and counties have no authority to monitor CDDs. The opinion carries much weight because there are few court precedents outlining how cities should treat CDDs, said City Council attorney Martin Shelby.

It also has wide implications for the city's future treatment of a form of government that is becoming increasingly prevalent. Hillsborough County leads the state with 34 CDDs, and six of those are in Tampa. The districts are popular with developers because they provide easy access to tax-free bonds that are paid back later by homeowners. In the past five years, more than 200 CDDs have been created in Florida, and local officials say more are on the way.

Because they're a type of government, CDDs shouldn't be regulated by another type of government, said Council member Shawn Harrison.

"CDD boards are elected officials," said Harrison, who started his political career on the Tampa Palms CDD in the 1990s. "None of us would support the city being overseen by the county."

But Dingfelder said he'd only want city oversight of those CDD boards that don't have elected members, as in the case of Cory Lake Isles. Unlike most CDDs, which typically begin electing homeowners to the board after six years, Cory Lake's board is still appointed by Thomason. That's because developers are allowed to control the board longer if homes sell slowly.

Despite there being five slots on a board, Thomason has only appointed four. For the past two years, a board majority has been the Thomason family: Gene, his wife, Betty, and son, Cory.

"(Cory Lake Isles) has had 12 years, and they haven't elected anyone," Dingfelder said. "When that happens, I don't think there's much oversight."

Harrison said concerns about one CDD weren't enough to intercede.

"I think the system works," he said. "The examples we're hearing about with Cory Lake Isles are the exception to the rule."

--Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 269-5312 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 7, 2005, 01:29:20]


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