Ownership change possible for dome
By BRYAN GILMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- City officials said Friday they will explore transferring ownership of Tropicana Field to Pinellas County after a Florida Supreme Court ruling left the city with an annual $1.45-million property tax bill for the dome.
Sports facilities that are owned by cities but leased to for-profit sports teams cannot be exempt from property tax under the Florida Constitution, the court ruled Thursday.
The city of St. Petersburg, which owns Tropicana Field, agreed in its lease with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to be responsible for any property taxes.
But stadiums owned by counties are tax-exempt under a 1957 court ruling that found all county-owned property is immune from taxation, City Attorney John Wolfe said.
Just as Hillsborough County is considering taking ownership of Raymond James Stadium and Legends Field in Tampa to let the Tampa Sports Authority off the tax hook, St. Petersburg might be able to transfer ownership of Tropicana to the county, Wolfe and City Administrator Tish Elston both said Friday.
"Obviously that is an option that would need to be considered, but we would need to talk to the county before we could pursue it, and we'd obviously have to talk to the City Council before we would pursue it," Wolfe said.
Would the city sell the the dome to Pinellas County, or simply sign it over? Will the county play ball?
"We are just now starting to look into what are all the issues and what would you have to look into to make that option work," Elston said Friday.
Interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster said the idea was brand new to her Friday afternoon, and she and her staff would have to research it.
"It's a situation that I would definitely want to understand fully before we gave any kind of response," she said. "It sounds complicated at best. It is brand new information."
Wolfe said the lease with the Devil Rays would not have to be renegotiated if dome ownership moved to the county.
"They've indicated they'd cooperate with us," Wolfe said of the team. The new tax bill increases the city's annual ownership expense of Tropicana Field by about 23 percent.
The city already has been paying about $6.5-million as its share of payments on bonds that financed the stadium construction and renovations. Pinellas County pays about $4.5-million per year toward the bonds, and the state of Florida pays about $2-million per year.
The extra tax expense for the city is on top of about $550,000 in bond payments the city had hoped would be covered by its share of Devil Rays parking revenues, which have not materialized because of low attendance and other factors.
Further, the city lost $128,368 operating the stadium last year because of dwindling attendance. It lost $20,286 in 1999, and it profited $77,690 in the opening season.
Wolfe said another option for sidestepping the Tropicana tax would be a constitutional amendment.
In 1998, 52 percent of statewide voters rejected a constitutional amendment to accommodate tax exemptions for municipal stadiums. Wolfe said it was included with several other tax break plans, and that may have contributed to its demise.
Elston, the city administrator, said the city has stockpiled money in a reserve fund since 1999 in case the Supreme Court ruled against it. She said the city has saved enough to cover the first two years of tax bills while it devises a new game plan.
"I guess the reason we're not all up in arms about it, and we're going to continue to unravel it in a very logical way, is that we had the opportunity to set money aside in a reserve," Elston said.
"It really does give us an opportunity to analyze and carefully structure whatever the best option for the community is."
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