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County vs. city on arena funds

The two face off on using tourist taxes for sports venue upgrades.

By BILL VARIAN
Published July 19, 2006


TAMPA - Hillsborough commissioners are poised today to earmark millions of future tourist tax dollars for renovations at the county's three main pro sports venues, over the city of Tampa's objections.

County officials said Tuesday they are simply being prudent in ensuring money will be available for upgrades needed in the future at Raymond James Stadium, the St. Pete Times Forum and Legends Field, without having to hit up property taxpayers.

City officials say they largely have been left out of the discussion even though 80 percent of the tourist taxes come from hotels inside Tampa.

The city is "very interested" in a financing plan that invests in community assets, city finance director Bonnie Wise wrote in a letter Monday to County Administrator Pat Bean. But the city finds many aspects of the proposal "not in the best interest of taxpayers."

Hillsborough government collects 5 cents, known as the tourist tax, on every dollar spent on hotels with each of those five pennies dedicated toward a specific public cause. But the fourth and fifth cents of the tax are bringing in more than what they were created for, such as paying off loans to build the St. Pete Times Forum.

So the county is proposing that $70.5-million in excess revenue be spent on renovations at the three venues between now and 2028. The St. Pete Times Forum, where the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning play, would get up to $35-million; Raymond James Stadium, where the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers play, would get up to $28-million; and Legends Field, where baseball's New York Yankees play spring training games, would get up to $7.5-million.

State law designates counties to collect the money, so Hillsborough officials say they aren't obligated to consult the city, although they have done so nevertheless.

"I thought it was a great idea to reinvest tourist tax dollars without having to spend property taxes," said Hillsborough Commission Chairman Jim Norman, who pitched the idea.

But city officials, including Mayor Pam Iorio, say the city hasn't been meaningfully consulted about the idea. They also question the need for dedicating future tax dollars toward Raymond James and Legends Field.

The money would count toward a county obligation to pick up two-thirds of annual shortfalls by the Tampa Sports Authority, the government agency that runs Raymond James. It would not count toward the city's obligation to pick up the remaining third.

And the city said the Tampa Convention Center, the county's biggest draw for people who stay in hotels, needs money more urgently for a new roof and air conditioning system.

In response, the county has agreed to set aside up to $9.9-million for the Convention Center, though the city objects to some of the terms.

County debt management director Mike Merrill said he has consulted with Wise and the mayor, but they were unwilling to compromise.

He noted that all three sports arenas are owned by the county, which controls how tourist tax dollars are spent. And while all three are in Tampa, the city has done little to help underwrite the cost of their upkeep.

"They want the benefits of the tourist tax and don't want to share in the pain," Merrill said. "It's just sort of this intransigent attitude: 'Just do things our way, and that's it.' "

The county contends that money for the St. Pete Times Forum is most urgent. Lightning management has claimed for years that it is losing millions, in part because the building's design makes it expensive to air condition, has inadequate room for vendors and has other costly flaws.

While the team has been negotiating with the city for such things as a portion of parking revenue, those discussions have yet to bear fruit.

The county would give the team up to $35-million to renovate the building: $7-million the first year and $2-million a year after that. In return, the team would be subject to stiffer financial penalties if it leaves town within 15 years. Wise appears to accept terms of that deal in her letter Monday. But she argued that local government is not required to pay for any renovations at Legends Field, and that repair work at Raymond James won't be needed for years.

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 05:48:04]


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