Taxes play in Rays' plans

City and county taxes look like a vital turn in the financial map to a new stadium.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Rays are counting on more than the sale of Tropicana Field to help pay for a new waterfront stadium.

The team is studying a plan to use city and county property tax dollars from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field to raise money for a new $450-million ballpark, according to documents released by the city this week.

Those tax dollars could raise nearly $150-million by 2035, based on the Rays' projections.

Thanks to a city tax program in place since 1982, the local tax revenue generated by such a development must be used on capital improvements downtown anyway. But questions remain. Would the city and county agree to it? Could the Rays get the money in a lump sum up front?

City officials declined to discuss the idea, and the Rays have remained publicly silent on the details of their plans. The team has said it will unveil its stadium proposal next week.

Rays senior vice president for development and business affairs Michael Kalt tipped his hand in a letter to the city last month.

The new stadium, Kalt wrote, "must pay for itself through a combination of private funds and new taxes generated by the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site."

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg has pledged up to $150-million toward the cost of a new stadium on the current site of Al Lang Field. The team also is interested in requesting a $60-million sales tax subsidy from the state.

That leaves the team looking for $240-million.

The Rays hope to capitalize on a city tax program in place for 25 years for at least some of the funds.

The tax increment financing program was created to pump city and county tax dollars into capital projects in the area where the taxes are paid.

The city has three tax districts - one in and around downtown, one directly to the west and one to the south.

Most of the Tropicana site fits into the downtown taxing district, as does the Al Lang site.

Under the district's rules, city and county property taxes collected on the redeveloped Tropicana site could be redirected to help pay construction costs at the new ballpark.

The money also could help fund infrastructure or road repairs, or build a parking garage. Or it could be used on sidewalks, lighting or signage.

It could not be used for most personnel costs, including police officers, or most city programs. And it cannot be spent outside the tax district.

The special district was to expire in 2012. But Mayor Rick Baker persuaded Pinellas County commissioners in 2005 to extend the program until 2035.

Baker said then the extra money would be help pay for repairs to the Pier and the Mahaffey Theater. Other funds would be used to build a parking garage and transportation hub and improve landscaping.

None of it took into account the possible redevelopment of the Tropicana site, which will bring millions more dollars to the district.

The financial impact

How much money that could be available to the Rays - if elected leaders agreed - is dependent on two things: the city and county's tax rate, and the valuation of the Tropicana land once the Rays redevelop it.

If the tax rates don't change, the Tropicana site could generate $143-million between 2012 and 2035 if the development is worth $550-million about what the Rays initially estimated, according to documents.

If the site is worth $300-million, $78.4-million would be available. If the site is worth $200-million, $52.44-million could be available.

The dollar figure would escalate if property values at the Tropicana site increase over time. The team intends to attract a developer to build a major mixed-use project at the site.

"The whole thing hinges on the successful redevelopment of that site," said Tim Baker, the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. "They won't get the money otherwise."

The money can't be given to the Rays, but it can be spent on projects the Rays want - if the city and the county agree.

Court creates limbo

Whether or not the team could get the bulk of the money up front is a matter now with the Florida Supreme Court.

Previously, governments were allowed to issue bonds to pay for projects in tax increment districts, with the idea that future property tax revenues would pay off the debt.

But the Florida Supreme Court ruled in September that governments need to hold a referendum to issue bonds backed by property tax dollars.

The court then last month allowed parties to argue that the case be reheard. Craig Waters, a spokesman for the court, said no decision has been made.

"The whole case is unusual," said Waters, adding that the court could uphold, reverse or modify its September ruling.

If the court upholds its decision, the Rays likely would have to ask the city for a referendum to get the proceeds up front, or take a loan out themselves.

If the court reverses its decision, the Rays could ask for the money ahead of time without a public vote. The team already is contemplating a November 2008 referendum where voters would be asked to decide whether to lease the Al Lang site to the Rays.

Rick Mussett, the city's senior development administrator, would not answer questions about tax increment financing specific to the Rays.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," he said.

And, potentially, the Rays believe, a lot of money.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com.


Tax increment financing

- Redevelopment of Tropicana Field site could raise nearly $150-million by 2035.

- Not a new tax; money must be spent in area.

- May trigger referendum.

How St. Petersburg's tax increment financing district works:

- The city created the downtown tax increment financing district in 1982.

- It includes 309 acres downtown, including the area around BayWalk and both Tropicana Field and Al Lang Field.

- All property owners still pay their full property tax bill.

- What the city and county collect for their general funds is capped at the same amount that they received in 1982.

- The money left over is redirected to the city's tax increment fund.

- The City Council, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, decides how to use the extra money. The County Commission also must sign off on the plan.

- The money, $8.38-million this fiscal year, can be used for capital and infrastructure projects. It must be used within the tax increment district.