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Court decision allows school financing
The city worries, however, that a line of credit now requiring a vote will jeopardize a park.
By JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 2, 2007
TAMPA - The Florida Supreme Court has revised a ruling that jeopardized financing for construction of new schools in Hillsborough County and high-profile projects slated for downtown Tampa.
The change has the school district breathing a sigh of relief, but does nothing for the city.
City Attorney David Smith said the revised opinion still won't allow the city to draw on a line of credit officials planned to use to pay for a $15-million renovation of Curtis Hixon Park.
"It doesn't specifically help us," Smith said. "The positive thing about it is that it's a movement in the right direction and they're recognizing that commitments had been made."
The city had planned to pay for the park and other projects with a $40-million line of credit that would be repaid using property tax dollars generated downtown. Much of downtown is designated as a community redevelopment area that uses "tax increment financing" to funnel property tax revenue increases back into the neighborhood for improvements.
But according to a Sept. 6 state Supreme Court decision, debt backed by tax increment financing dollars needs voter approval.
The decision prompted a flurry of requests for a rehearing, which the court granted Sept. 20. Oral arguments are set for Oct. 9.
On Friday, the court issued a revised opinion stating that the decision does not apply retroactively to previous bonds. The justices also removed the referendum requirement from "certificates of participation," a type of financing favored by school districts.
"The school boards always thought that would be the ruling," said Tom Gonzalez, an attorney for the Hillsborough School Board. "The really, really good news is it got worked out so early so we don't have the suspense."
The city of Tampa is not so lucky.
The line of credit the city was counting on for the park renovation and other projects - including improvements to Ashley Drive - isn't officially in play until the city draws on it, Smith said. That hasn't happened yet.
But Smith said he believes the line of credit should be grandfathered in because the city has proceeded with plans for the projects under the assumption the money would be available.
"The city has already made commitments and entered into contracts to hire designers, engineers and even those who are going to supervise the construction," Smith said.
Mayor Pam Iorio has put the projects slated to be financed with the money on hold and is directing all the property tax revenue from downtown - about $3-million a year - into the park.
Iorio has also pledged to find money elsewhere in the city's budget to pay for the park and pay it back to those accounts over time with the downtown property tax money.