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When sweetheart deals end, taxpayers foot the bill

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


In my dream there was a knock at the door. Right on the front porch stood Vince Naimoli of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Malcolm Glazer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Each held a little plastic bucket.

"It's time for you to pay our property taxes for us," they said. "So fork it over."

"Wait a minute," I protested. "You want ME to pay YOUR property taxes?"

"That's right," they said, grinning. "You know those big stadiums that you built for us? Well, the Florida Supreme Court just ruled that they're subject to property taxes, after all."

I knew that much. The court's ruling came down only last Thursday. Property taxes now apply to stadiums or ball parks or race tracks or whatever. When a for-profit team leases them from the government, it's not really for a tax-exempt "public purpose."

"The Supreme Court was absolutely right," I told Naimoli and Glazer. "Why shouldn't you guys have to pay?"

They looked at each other and just laughed.

"Look, kid, in the first place you're wrong," Naimoli said. "What's a better public purpose than a sports team? Who showed you a better time last year, the Devil Rays or your local fire department? Did you set aside your Sunday afternoons to watch the School Board channel on cable access?"

Glazer butted in impatiently. "But it doesn't matter," he said. "The bottom line is, if there's tax to be paid, YOU have to pay it for us."

I demanded proof. Naimoli handed me a slip of paper that said:

YOU'LL PAY VINCE'S TAXES

Mayor and City Council

St. Petersburg, Florida

Glazer had his own card, too. His was signed by Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa.

I slapped my forehead like Homer Simpson. "Doh!" I cried. "You mean, local governments promised that the citizens would pay your property taxes for you?"

"Bingo," they said in unison.

"What were those guys thinking?" I asked. "Were they hoping the Supreme Court would never rule the way it did?"

"Who knows?" Naimoli shrugged. "Look, your guys were desperate to get a baseball team. You think a lousy million and a half a year was going to break the deal? When a guy is crawling through the desert, he doesn't haggle over a drop of water."

Glazer nodded. "The Bucs had the same kind of sweetheart deal ever since 1975," he said. "My buddies on the County Commission and in City Hall weren't giving me anything that they hadn't been giving for a quarter-century."

"Okay," I asked stubbornly, "how come the Tampa Bay Lightning have to pay their property tax at the Ice Palace? How come the New York Yankees have to pay at least part of theirs at Legends Field?"

Naimoli and Glazer hissed in disgust. "Because of that guy Fred Karl, who used to be the county administrator," Glazer said. "Lucky for me, I was able to deal with men who were, you know, more reasonable."

I sighed and reached for my wallet. Maybe the Rays will do better this year, I told myself, even if there's no bullpen and a typical game score is 15-13.

"At least we'll know better next time," I said. "At least the Supreme Court's ruling means that the Legislature and local governments can't give sweetheart tax breaks anymore."

"I wouldn't be so sure," they told me. "The Legislature is trying to restore these kind of tax breaks right now. Go look up House Joint Resolution 209, and Senate Joint Resolution 948." So when I woke up I wrote down the bill numbers and looked them up, and you know what? It was true. But that's a topic for another day.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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