ST. PETERSBURG — As the Tampa Bay Rays continue their search for a new ballpark, St. Petersburg is spending the funding source it once used to pay off the bonds for Tropicana Field.
The bonds were paid in 2015. This year, almost all the $3.125 million the city used to spend annually on bonds has been spent on 18 projects ranging from mentoring programs, office supplies and helping the homeless. In the next fiscal year, it will be spent on the city's new police headquarters.
But if St. Petersburg were to keep the Rays — the team has long eyed a Tampa stadium — should the city be squirreling away that money to help build a stadium?
Mayor Rick Kriseman doesn't seem to think so. If the Rays wish to stay, he said St. Petersburg will be able to help pay for a stadium in much the same way it helped pay to build what is now known as the Trop in 1990: construction bonds financed by the city and the county's tourist tax.
The city also has a new funding source it didn't have three decades ago: the future development rights to Tropicana Field.
"I'm confident that the financing isn't going to be a challenge," the mayor said.
Kriseman wouldn't discuss specifics about financing a new stadium before the team makes its choice. He said he doesn't want to start negotiating in public. But other city officials offered more details.
Before the city obligations to the Trop were paid off, county bed taxes, or taxes applied to hotel rooms and short-term rentals, paid the bulk of the debt. In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, bed taxes covered all but $2.4 million of the debt. The city covered its share with a guaranteed stream of state sales taxes.
That state sales tax money, called "guaranteed essential resources," was used to pay off the construction bonds and a loan for the Trop goes into the city's general fund, just like franchise fees and property taxes.
After the bonds and loan were paid off , the state sales tax money has been spent on one-time projects. It has not been promised to any other ongoing funding commitments, officials said, so it can be rededicated to a new stadium.
"From our standpoint, it's a revenue stream just like any other revenue stream," said city administrator Gary Cornwell of the state sales taxes.
If the Rays decide to stay in St. Petersburg, Cornwell said, the city can find the money either from the guaranteed state sales tax or somewhere else. But he added: "We don't have concrete plans. It's way too speculative right now."
The mix of public and private dollars that St. Petersburg and Pinellas County could contribute to help pay for a baseball stadium is largely a mystery. The county has pledged bed tax money, but legislative support — long considered an essential part of the equation — looks shakier. Nor have the Rays discussed how much they might contribute.
The city has a tentative agreement with the Pinellas County Commission to reserve the "sixth cent" of the county's bed tax revenue to service bonds for a stadium. The county collected $8.6 million in 2016.
St. Petersburg may actually be in a better position to finance a stadium now than it was in the late 1980s because it would have a new potential funding source: the city's half of the Trop development rights.
Not only is the Trop site considered the city's leading candidate for a new stadium (built in the parking lot across from the dome) but the entire site is a hot urban sector. Whether the Rays stay or go, the city hopes to redevelop it. Money from the development rights could be bonded and used to satisfy a large portion of the city's share of a new stadium, estimated to cost at least $600 million.
"I think it's okay to wait because the other potential source of revenue is the developments rights that exist," said council member Jim Kennedy.
Kennedy has been a strong proponent of keeping the Rays in the city and twice voted against agreements to let the team look outside St. Petersburg. He said the city doesn't need to build up a reserve when it has development rights that could fetch millions.
If it wants to raise stadium cash through bonds, Cornwell said, a piggy bank for a ballpark doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Bonding agencies want a dedicated revenue stream to fund those bonds.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently said the team's timeline for announcing where it wants to build a ballpark has been pushed to the end of the year. That will likely make the team's future in the city an issue in this summer's mayoral race. So far, no major candidate has gotten into the race against Kriseman, although former Mayor Rick Baker is thought to be weighing a run.
Baker was mayor when the Rays' attempt to build a ballpark in place of historic Al Lang Stadium folded in 2008. Now he works for the Tampa Bay Rowdies and is leading a referendum to allow the team to spend $80 million — but no public money — to expand Al Lang in a bid to join Major League Soccer.
In the meantime, while the Rays continue their stadium search, city administrator Cornwell said the funds once used to pay off the Trop are best spent elsewhere: "We get a better bang for our buck for our citizens to use it as a one-time expense."