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City has to pay bill for agency facing turmoil

Tampa is liable for money owed by THAP, which is the subject of much scrutiny.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 30, 2001


TAMPA -- The city was forced this week to use public money to make a mortgage payment for the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, the nonprofit agency under scrutiny by government officials and federal investigators.

The city paid $17,500 in interest on the mortgage THAP obtained a year ago for the $275,000 purchase of the historic Morgan Cigar Factory building on Howard Avenue.

"The loan is guaranteed by the city," explained David Snyder, assistant manager of the city's business and community services department. "The need for a payment to be made got to be critical."

The bailout raises new questions about THAP's financial viability at a particularly critical time. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Hillsborough County and the city have all demanded that THAP produce an audit or forfeit millions of dollars for services to needy residents.

"The audit will tell us how shaky their house of cards really is," said City Council member Bob Buckhorn. "None of us -- the county, the city or the feds -- are going to budge until we get a clean bill of health on THAP.

"We have an obligation to empower these nonprofits, but they have to be held to a certain standard."

THAP bought the yellow-brick cigar factory with plans to develop it into apartments for people with mixed incomes. But a year after the purchase, no major renovation has begun. The city hopes a buyer will step forward to get THAP and the city off the hook for the loan.

If the city continues to make payments, Buckhorn said, "we ought to take ownership of the building and develop it ourselves."

The city also is a guarantor of a $650,000 loan THAP obtained last year to buy an aging, four-story warehouse on 12th Street in the Channelside District. THAP's boss, Chester M. Luney, promised to renovate the warehouse into office space for THAP and other nonprofits, but no work has been done.

Luney engineered the building purchases with the help of former city housing chief Steve LaBrake, who now is at the center of a federal grand jury investigation into the building of a luxury home in south Tampa by LaBrake and Lynne McCarter, his city aide and fiancee.

Luney provided a series of personal favors and okayed the spending of THAP money to help enable LaBrake and McCarter to build the luxury home.

LaBrake also gave his blessings to a pair of HUD Community Development Block Grants, each for $200,000, for THAP at the cigar factory building and the Channelside warehouse. Now, if THAP's original development plans are dead, that money can be allocated by the city to other projects, Synder said.

THAP's questionable finances prompted County Administrator Dan Kleman to demand it produce an audit by today or lose $788,064 for housing and medical services to residents who have AIDS or are HIV-positive. THAP has not provided the audit as required since 1997.

Kleman said the county faces a difficult decision if it does cut THAP's funding. The services would have to be picked up by some other group.

The city also is waiting for an audit and has held up another $522,000 for THAP. THAP has asked to make a presentation to the City Council on Dec. 13, but Buckhorn said the council is adamant that "if they don't have the audit, they don't come."

The VA also wants THAP's audit and has frozen another $1.25-million. The VA is refusing to honor any reimbursement requests for expenses at the THAP-run Veterans Village shelter for homeless vets because of an ongoing Inspector Generals' investigation.

THAP spokesman Warren Dawson declined to comment Thursday.

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