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    Stadium tax ruling may cost cities

    Dunedin and Clearwater officials wonder what effects a court decision will have on their cities' ledgers.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- North Pinellas County officials began pondering Thursday how a Florida Supreme Court decision could affect their spring training stadiums -- and their cities' finances.

    The court ruled that civic facilities such as stadiums should be charged property taxes when leased to private groups. The case spun from a long-standing dispute over the Sebring International Raceway in central Florida.

    Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith made it clear in early 1999 that the tax-exempt status of the area's spring training stadiums was under review and that property taxes might someday be levied on them based on the outcome of the ruling that came Thursday.

    Smith declined to comment until he had a chance to read the ruling. City officials in Dunedin and Clearwater said they will await word from the appraiser on their possible bills.

    In Dunedin, officials said they do not know how high the tax bill would be. The city has agreed to pay up to $25,000 of any property taxes, the same amount the Toronto Blue Jays are willing to pay. If tax bill for the Blue Jays' facilities exceeds $50,000, then the city and the team would have to negotiate who picks up the rest of the tab.

    Dunedin is ready to begin a $12-million renovation of Grant Field and Englebert Complex.

    Clearwater estimates the total annual tax bill for Phillies facilities at $184,000 once the Philadelphia Phillies' new spring training stadium is built over the next three years. The new complex is expected to cost at least $22.7-million.

    Under the terms of the city's deal with the Phillies, Clearwater has agreed to pay its own property taxes and split the rest of the county's tax bill with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies' potential costs from property taxes weren't disclosed.

    Clearwater officials had hoped that the tax bill wouldn't materialize because they have obligated themselves to pay more for other stadium costs, including utilities and maintenance, once the new stadium is built northwest of Drew Street and U.S. 19.

    "I don't have a reaction yet," said Keith Ashby, the city administrator who is overseeing the project to build the Phillies' stadium. "I'll have to look at what they said and then run it by the financial staff."

    Both Clearwater and Dunedin have considered asking the property appraiser to cut their tax bills by only taxing the days of the year that the Phillies and Blue Jays use their city stadiums.

    The baseball teams share their city facilities with other groups. For instance, the new Phillies stadium will accommodate high school baseball games.

    "I think that's doable," Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard said of the idea. "We'll just to have to do what we have to do, I guess."

    Both the Blue Jays and the Phillies were disappointed by news of the ruling.

    "It's something we've been aware of since that went to the Supreme Court, and we were aware of it enough to address it in the agreement with the city," said John Timberlake, director of Florida operations for the Phillies. "But it's not a positive thing for us, because it will cost us more money. There'd been that exemption for years."

    Ken Carson, the Blue Jays' director of Florida operations, said the decision could mean more talks with the city about the issue.

    "We'd have to wait and see what the property value is worth, but obviously, it's a blow," Carson said. "There's going to be some things now that everybody needs to look at."

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