tampabay.com

$12M ours, Bucs say

Taxpayer millions for a "practice facility" should be held for the Bucs, the team argues.

By BILL VARIAN
Published May 22, 2007


TAMPA - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers run plays, lift weights and nurse injuries at a glittery new complex across from Raymond James Stadium.

But don't call it a practice facility.

The Bucs call it a training facility and team headquarters.

As such, the government agency that runs the stadium can't do anything with the $12-million in taxpayer money set aside for the team to build a "practice facility, " the team argues.

That money must remain available to the team for the nearly 20 years left on its contract with the Tampa Sports Authority, which operates Raymond James Stadium.

"We reserve our right to the $12-million allowance in perpetuity, " Eric Land, chief operating officer for the Buccaneers, said after Monday's meeting of the Sports Authority. "The facility we're working in now is a headquarters building and training facility, and we have yet to build a real practice facility."

The 1996 agreement that led to the publicly funded construction of Raymond James Stadium set aside $12-million in sales taxes for the team to build a "first class NFL practice facility."

If the team tapped the sales tax money, it would be required to turn over its ownership to the Sports Authority.

But the Bucs were not obligated to take the allowance.

So when an offshoot of the team spent what Sports Authority general counsel John Van Voris estimates is more than $40-million of its own money to build the complex without seeking reimbursement, some local officials saw opportunity.

With the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County looking for ways to cut spending and build roads, the $12-million should be returned to local government, they argued.

That proposition touched off a flurry of written and oral exchanges between lawyers for the Sports Authority, the Bucs, the city and the county. Sports Authority members jumped into the fray Monday when it appeared that the lawyers could not reach resolution.

The Sports Authority agreed to have its chairman and executive director meet with the Bucs to get a better fix on what, if anything, they have planned for the money.

"Right now we're just stalled, " board member Patrick Manteiga said.

The Bucs have hinted at several options, according to legal opinions crafted by Van Voris, the authority attorney. The 1996 agreement allows them to use money left over from the $12-million practice facility allowance on stadium renovations.

So the Bucs suggested using all the money for that purpose. Van Voris said that can't happen unless the team transfers ownership of its new facility to the Sports Authority.

The Bucs have also suggested building an indoor practice field and transferring its ownership to the Sports Authority. Van Voris said that wasn't allowed because it would be only part of a "first class NFL practice facility."

In the meantime, he has advised that if the Bucs don't claim the allowance for the new practice facility, the money should be distributed to the county and its cities.

Currently, the $12-million earns interest in an account controlled by the authority, with proceeds helping to pay for upkeep at Raymond James.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, who sits on the Sports Authority, led board members in strongly questioning Van Voris' legal conclusions. He said County Attorney Renee Lee believes the authority would be on shaky ground if it took the matter to court.

"She's of the belief that, if we push that envelope, our taxpayer is at even greater risk, " Norman said.

Van Voris asked if her opinions were in writing and Norman said they were not.

Land, the Bucs executive, said the agreement between the team and the authority spells out no time line for claiming the practice facility money.

Semantics aside, he said it doesn't matter whether the team calls its new complex a practice or training facility. The money must remain available to the team upon its request until the agreement expires, he said.

Land said the team is interested in working with the authority to build something that benefits the team, the authority and the public, whatever it may be called.

"We fully intend to make use of those funds in building an asset that will not only be in the Bucs' best interest, but in the community's best interest, " he said.

Times staff writer Stephen Holder contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or 813 226-3387.