Ruling may push Lightning to negotiate a new pact
By BILL VARIAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001
TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning may have lost its final home game Thursday, but the real bad news for the hockey team came on 33 sheets of paper filed by Florida's highest court.
Already bleeding money due to sagging ticket sales, the team learned it will have to start paying property taxes for the Ice Palace arena it leases from the Tampa Sports Authority. This year's bill: an estimated $3.2-million.
The Supreme Court ruling likely will lend urgency to groundwork already being laid by the team to renegotiate the agreement that makes it responsible for Ice Palace property taxes.
Team President Ron Campbell points to deals worked out by Tampa's other professional sports franchises, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Yankees. The Bucs pay no property taxes at Raymond James Stadium, and the Yankees are beholden for half the tab at its spring training center, Legends Field.
Records show that team lawyers last month filed a request with the county seeking all documents relating to the financing of the football and baseball stadiums.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Jim Norman said Friday he may press a proposal to use surplus hotel tax dollars to refurbish the Ice Palace. In return, he would seek to close a loophole in an agreement that enables the team to pull out of the Ice Palace if attendance wanes.
The proposal, which Norman said he broached a year ago, has languished while all sides awaited Thursday's court ruling.
Thursday's Supreme Court ruling came in a closely watched Highlands County case involving the Sebring International Raceway. The court said stadiums, arenas and racetracks owned by certain governments -- such as cities and authorities -- are not exempt from property taxes. The ruling does not apply to state or county governments, which are exempted by the Florida Constitution from paying property taxes.
Property Appraiser Rob Turner used an earlier appellate ruling in the case to advance his efforts to collect property taxes from Tampa's three sports franchises. The high court ruling affects each team, and taxpayers, differently.
The Lightning is responsible for any property taxes levied on the Ice Palace, built in 1995 with a mixture of city, county and team financing. In return, the team pays no rent, collects concessions for other events and has an escape clause that allows them to back out should attendance sag.
Team lawyers have argued that they should be exempt from property taxes and have challenged Turner's assessments.
"It probably would never have been built if someone had said, "In addition, you're going to have to pay a $3- to $4-million tax bill,' " Campbell said.
Three options seem apparent from interviews with county and team officials:
As with the other arenas, Hillsborough County could take over ownership of the Ice Palace, exempting the Lightning from property taxes, which Campbell said would be "a nice outcome."
The team could continue to challenge its assessments, opening up potentially new legal arguments.
It could raise ticket and concession prices, which would do little to boost attendance.
Or it could move to reopen its agreement with the Sports Authority, city and county.
The county uses a 50-cent surcharge on tickets plus a penny from a 5 percent sales tax levied on hotel guests to pay its share of debt payments to build the Ice Palace. The fund is running a surplus that is expected to grow.
Any proposal is sure to spark a vigorous debate among commissioners. Commission chairwoman Pat Frank said Friday that she has little sympathy for the Lightning's situation.
"That's what free enterprise is all about," she said. "I'm not very supportive of anything that is going to enhance a brand new building. It's certainly not going to improve their record."
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