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Pinellas revives dispute over Tropicana Field

The county says it could pay less for the ballpark if St. Petersburg does not share money saved by its refinancing.

Published August 21, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - It appeared St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had reached a truce in their fight over Tropicana Field.

But the county landed another punch Wednesday.

It came in the form of a letter written to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker by county lawyers. The letter states that the county could legally reduce its annual payments on the ballpark if the city won't share its savings from refinancing the bonds issued to build it. That would mean the loss of millions of dollars for St. Petersburg.

The blow caught city officials by surprise.

"I can't believe they're doing this," council member James Bennett exclaimed Wednesday. "At what point are they going to remember that the people of St. Petersburg are citizens of Pinellas County, too?"

Pinellas officials claim they are simply doing their jobs by sharing the information. But City Council members, who were scheduled to finalize the bond deal today, questioned the timing on a dispute they thought was settled.

The argument over Tropicana Field began in May, when the city proposed refinancing the bonds. After weeks of squabbling, City Council members approved a plan that allowed the city to keep the entire savings, approximately $700,000 per year.

The county then hired a private law firm to examine the agreements that spell out the county's commitment to help finance Tropicana Field.

Alexandra MacLennan, the attorney retained, found a loophole.

In 1993, the county pledged a fixed amount of money, about $2.6-million, to help the city with the cost of the dome. Three years later, the city and the county amended the deal and Pinellas pledged to use a penny collected from each dollar earmarked for tourist development tax revenues. That figure fluctuates, but has averaged about $4-million a year.

MacLennan found that the 1996 agreement "narrowly defines" the 1993 bonds and specifically requires that the county's proceeds be used only for the payment of the debt service on the 1993 bonds.

That means the county would only have to pay the $2.6-million agreed upon in 1993, about $1.4-million less per year for the city.

County commissioners appeared divided on the matter during their meeting Tuesday night.

"If we committed to a number of years, we should honor it," Commissioner Calvin Harris said. "Sometimes, we need to be adults. We ought to just send (the letter) and move on."

Harris was joined by Commissioners Ken Welch, John Morroni and Bob Stewart. All saw the opinion as a glitch. They agreed the right thing to do would be to amend the agreement so St. Petersburg can move forward on its own.

"I would not want to get in a tit-for-tat," Welch said. "I don't think we should pull back the $1.4-million. That will affect a quarter of a million St. Petersburg residents that are county residents."

But Barbara Sheen Todd and Susan Latvala saw the opinion as leverage in reopening negotiations for refinancing.

"I'm not interested in litigation, either," Todd said. "But I think we need to look at this as a true partnership, rather than a one-way street."

Andrew Houston, St. Petersburg's administrator of internal services, characterized the dispute as "dueling attorneys" and said they may have to go to court to settle the disagreement.

The City Council is expected to discuss options during its meeting today. This is just the latest argument between the two governments. They have bickered over everything from who should pay for fire hydrants in the unincorporated part of the county known as Lealman to what time the sale of alcohol should be allowed on Sundays.

The dispute over Tropicana Field may be moot from a financial standpoint, Houston added.

"Frankly," he said, "the financial markets have moved away from us in terms of interest rates, so a feasible deal may no longer be available to us."

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