Friday, November 17, 2017
News Roundup

St. Petersburg in middle of 'battle' with Pinellas County over tax district

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ST. PETERSBURG — A significant pot of money that could help pay for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium is at the center of a dispute between Pinellas County and St. Petersburg.

County leaders say they have concerns about contributing more money into a special taxing district that includes Tropicana Field. They have been telling Mayor Rick Kriseman for a year, but the City Council didn't learn about it until last week.

City Administrator Gary Cornwell said the city is in the middle of a "battle" with the county over the money. He told council members that the county's position could hamper the ability to keep the Rays in the city.

"It puts a little bit of a monkey wrench in it," Cornwell told the council, adding: They are not "very interested in entertaining any changes to the downtown … district, except potentially ending it."

One problem is that Tropicana Field and the downtown waterfront both sit in the so-called tax-increment financing district, known as the Intown Community Redevelopment Area. The county has pumped millions of dollars in recent years into the downtown pier and other projects. Last month, Kriseman approached the county for even more money for the new pier.

County leaders pledged to earmark up to $117 million in new county property taxes raised through redevelopment and increasing values when the district was created in 1981. They contend they will have met that obligation by 2018. They are open to extending the agreement, but the city has not responded to requests for information.

"That has been communicated to the city on multiple occasions," county administrator Mark Woodard said. "I don't understand what the disconnect is. We have not received any proposal from the city."

In May, Woodard sent a 13-page memo to commissioners about the 14 community redevelopment areas in the county. The memo said the Intown TIF would expire in 2018.

"The city is not on the same page," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "I would call this a disconnect."

City Council member Karl Nurse only learned of the county's position when Cornwell informed the council last week. He estimates that if the county stops contributing to the TIF, it would remove about $100 million from the table through 2032 that could be used for parking garages and streets to support a new stadium on the Tropicana site.

"I don't see how — having $100 million of uncertainty — I don't see how you have a serious conversation with the Rays," Nurse said.

Kriseman didn't respond to specific questions. His spokesman said the mayor's office wasn't aware of a rift.

"We will discuss the details of stadium funding if and when they decide to make St. Petersburg their forever home," Kriseman said in a statement.

A TIF district is a way for local governments to funnel growth in property tax revenue within a defined area toward infrastructure work such as laying new roads, installing street lights and renovating buildings.

The city has eyed the Intown TIF money for several big-ticket projects, including the pier.

In June 2015, the County Commission approved Kriseman's request to steer higher-than-anticipated tax revenues of about $20 million for construction projects related to the waterfront master plan and the approach to the pier. And two weeks ago, the county confirmed that Kriseman had approached officials about money for the new pier, already projected to cost $66 million.

Since June, city and county officials have traded emails about their views on when the county's contribution to the TIF ends and how much money is available, records show.

Last week, Cornwell implored council members to lobby county commissioners to continue contributing to the tax district. He warned that "discussions haven't been particularly fruitful" in reaching a compromise.

Yet Bill Berger, head of the county's Office of Management & Budget, wrote to a city official in July to say "we look forward to partnering with you to reach a common conclusion on this topic."

Pinellas County is committed to keeping the Rays from fleeing to Hillsborough and will likely dedicate taxes from hotel stays to a new stadium, Woodard and Welch said. The county has used a portion of those bed taxes to pay the debt incurred to build the Trop.

Welch said the city shouldn't depend on the county to pay all the costs associated with building a stadium. If the city did, "then they were on a different page with the county."

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