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Pinellas County's tourist tax vote muddles its position on a new Rays stadium

For years, Pinellas County commissioners have been criticized for following the business community's agenda too closely.

But the commission's tense vote Tuesday that limited the extension of a 5 percent tourist tax sent a cloudy message about its support for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The late-night vote — in front of high-powered business leaders supporting the measure — came the same day as Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce officials confirmed they're making stadium financing a top issue next year.

"It was the wrong message to send," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a supporter of a permanent extension.

The extension required a rare super majority: five of seven members' approval.

A permanent extension failed on a 4-3 vote, with Commissioners Neil Brickfield, Norm Roche and Nancy Bostock against it.

Then Brickfield provided the crucial fifth vote by persuading the board to accept ending the fourth and fifth cent taxes in 2021 — dramatically decreasing the pot of money available for a stadium.

The fourth and fifth cents were due to expire in 2015 when debt on Tropicana Field is satisfied. A permanent extension would have provided tens of millions for a new ballpark; one study's estimate was $70 million.

The Rays have pounded home their desire for a new stadium, possibly across the bay. St. Petersburg leaders are insisting the team stay in the city for the 17 years remaining on the contract.

The Tourist Development Council, led by Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel, purposefully included the option for continuing to use part of the bed tax to pay for a new stadium, without promising one.

But Brickfield repeatedly dismissed the notion that Tuesday's vote was about baseball. "There's no proposal for a stadium. You're asking me to deal in hypotheticals," he said Wednesday.

He said he was trying to find a compromise between extension supporters and people who wanted to shrink the tax. Brickfield said he sought a 2021 sunset to coincide with outstanding debt on spring training sites in Clearwater and Dunedin.

The measure dealt with a lot of other spending, such as beach renourishment and marketing, and giving the Salvador Dali Museum $2.5 million for its new building.

Its passage opens the pot of money to museums and other nonprofits, so business interests still won.

"It's not at all about baseball. It's about the plan in the broad sense," said TDC member Tim Bogott, president of the Tradewinds resort in St. Pete Beach.

A new requirement calls for a five-year review of how the tax money is spent, which means funding for a new stadium could be added later.

Welch and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster called the link between the tax and a stadium a red herring for tax opponents, but it clearly factored into the broader debate as antitax activists and stadium opponents decried an extension. Opponents like Matthew Bender of Palm Harbor left the commission meeting promising, "We know who to run people against now."

"To keep it going, in effect in my opinion, is increasing a tax for a whole new purpose," said Commissioner Norm Roche.

Roche, who won't support publicly funding a stadium without a referendum, failed to get support for his idea to scrap any money for a new stadium while still providing money for the Dali.

Both Roche and Bostock said the effect of the board's vote on a future stadium is uncertain.

"We didn't directly tackle the topic of a baseball stadium, I think it would be unwise to read too much into how we look at baseball," said Bostock, who opposed any extension without a deeper review of how the tax could be used.

The vote also shows the new dynamics on the commission.

Roche's Nov. 2 election over Calvin Harris replaced a reliable ally of business leaders with an outsider who is sometimes critical of taxes and corporate interests. A tourism advocate, Harris was widely expected to be the fifth vote for a permanent extension.

"I think it's taking things beyond the norm and really getting into the debate," Roche said. "... I think if there was an illusion of a rubber stamp, it's going to change."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County's tourist tax vote muddles its position on a new Rays stadium 12/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 2, 2010 8:35am]
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