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Building owners sue state over leases

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The owners of a controversial office building in Tallahassee that leases to several state agencies went to court Monday to try to block legislation requiring state workers to leave the facility.

Northwood Associates filed suit in Leon County circuit court, arguing that budget language ordering state agencies to leave the Northwood Centre is unconstitutional and a breach of the departments' contracts with the company. Northwood Centre has faced allegations in recent weeks that poor conditions have led to health problems for workers.

"This is an unfortunate situation for all involved. No one benefits from the actions taken by the agencies and the state," said Stuart Silberberg, a principal with the parent company of Northwood Associates, in a statement issued late Monday. "We hate having to take this action after so many years of a good partnership with the state, and it's a bad day for everyone. However, we believe this situation involves serious infringement of constitutional and contract law that can only be addressed through a court of law."

The lawsuit specifically names the Department of State and four state agencies that are parties to leases at the facility --- the Department of Management Services, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the Department of Children and Families and the Agency for State Technology.

It also names the heads of those agencies and the leaders of the Department of Education and the Department of Economic Opportunity.

In the lawsuit, Northwood Associates said it was working in good faith to try to address the issues at Northwood Centre, but received a letter on March 3, dated a day earlier, "demanding that certain work and work plans be accomplished" under the lease.

Three days later --- on a Sunday --- Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, agreed to place new language in the budget barring state money from being used to cover the leases.

The company's lawsuit suggests that some of the agencies were planning even before then to move elsewhere.

"Simultaneously with its legislative maneuvers to circumvent the lease, in February and March 2016 DMS (the Department of Management Services) and DBPR (the Department of Business and Professional Regulation) were already making arrangements with other private lessors to move state employees and operations from the Northwood Centre to other facilities in Tallahassee," it says.

The language calling for the state agencies to move out of Northwood Centre was folded into the fine print of a budget that the Legislature approved last month. That fine print, known as "proviso," often spells out exactly how money provided in the annual spending plan is supposed to be used.

While the budget language takes effect July 1, one of the leases referenced in the lawsuit runs until 2020.

Generally, state contracts are contingent on the Legislature providing money to pay for them. But the lawsuit says the money to pay for the leases is still in the state budget, despite the proviso, and that the agencies undermined the contract by asking lawmakers to approve the language on the leases.

The lawsuit calls for a court to find the language unconstitutional and to bar the agencies from "from relying upon the subject proviso for any purpose whatsoever." It also asks for damages from breach of contract.

The offices of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said they hadn't received the lawsuit when a reporter contacted them about it Monday afternoon.

Speaking to reporters last month during the budget negotiations, Lee said there was "a bit of a fire drill that broke out over (the lease issue) over the weekend," leading to the language in the budget.

"I understand they have other space here in town that would be able to receive them. ... Most importantly, we want to make sure that they're not in a building that is riddled with mold and issues," Lee said.