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Pinellas willing to work with Rays on stadium finances

The Pinellas County Commission has a message for the Tampa Bay Rays:

We won't dedicate future property tax dollars generated by the redevelopment of Tropicana Field for your new ballpark. But when it comes to extending a 1-cent-on-the-dollar bed tax to cover costs, maybe we can play ball.

County leaders say they knew the Rays would eventually have to come to them if the team hoped to build its $450-million dream stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront.

After months on the periphery, Pinellas officials weighed in Monday, days after Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt told the St. Petersburg Times that he envisioned a joint city-county partnership to help pay for the proposed project.

Until now, the focus had been on talks between the team and St. Petersburg officials.

Several county commissioners expressed frustration that the Rays hadn't come to them sooner. It didn't help that they learned of the team's new vision for funding the ballpark in the pages of the Times, rather than in face-to-face meetings.

"This is not being done smoothly," remarked County Commissioner Calvin Harris.

"It's kind of been awkward," said County Commissioner Ken Welch. "That's kind of the best word that I can come up with."

Though details are few, the Rays have said they're willing to pay $150-million for the ballpark's upfront construction costs. That leaves $300-million that needs to be found.

One idea that's been floated would involve using future property tax revenue from the redevelopment of the team's current home, Tropicana Field, to pay for the new waterfront stadium.

No chance, said Harris, voicing a position shared by fellow commissioners who face reduced revenue projections and are axing programs and people in next year's budget.

"Tax money, ad valorem tax money, is out of the question," Harris said. "I don't even want to talk about pledging tax dollars."

When told Monday of how the commission was leaning, the Rays' Kalt said the full financing proposal he plans to bring forward won't involve asking the county for property tax money.

Kalt declined to be specific, but said the plan will likely mimic the commitment the county and city made to build Tropicana Field.

Under that agreement, the county provides $5-million a year through a 1-cent-on-the-dollar bed tax charged for hotel stays. The city provides another $5-million through sales tax revenue.

The combined money is used to pay debt on bonds that St. Petersburg issued to build Tropicana Field.

The bed-tax penny the county now dedicates to Tropicana Field sunsets Sept. 30, 2015. But the penny could be extended and the money used to pay debt on bonds issued for the Rays' new ballpark.

A favorable recommendation from the county's Tourist Development Council and a simple-majority vote of the County Commission would be all that's needed.

"I think the bed tax makes the most sense," Welch said. "Property tax, I don't know how I could support that."

A map to follow

There are several steps that must take place before the county could seriously consider extending the bed tax, Welch said.

First, St. Petersburg must choose a redevelopment partner for the Tropicana Field site. That could happen in early May.

Then the City Council will decide whether to put a referendum on developing the waterfront ballpark before St. Petersburg voters in November.

The first of three council votes needed to put the referendum on the ballot takes place June 5.

If those hurdles are cleared, Welch said the county could then play a role in the deal, but more specifics will be needed from the Rays.

Over the past month, Kalt said Rays executives had met with commissioners to inform them of team plans. Welch and other commissioners described those meetings as being about the Rays' vision for the new ballpark, not nuts-and-bolts discussions of how to pay for the project.

"We have received nothing at this point that's firm," Welch said. "The question is, 'What exactly we are being asked to do?' and that has not been clearly delineated by the Rays."

County Commissioner Karen Seel said the Rays have picked a bad time to come calling. Like her colleagues, Seel said property tax dollars were off-limits. But she also expressed doubts about tapping the bed tax.

The total bed tax, 5 cents on the dollar, is primarily used to market the county to tourists. It's also used to match federal and state beach renourishment grants, which are themselves in jeopardy, Seel said.

The bed tax, she said, is already stressed.

Late to the party

Kalt said he hoped to engage the full commission and offer more details when the ballpark's financing plan is complete. The plan could be ready in May.

For some commissioners, who feel they've been brought into discussions late, the timing and lack of specifics isn't helping the Rays' case.

"Everybody should have been involved from the beginning," Harris said. "If this is big time, you can't just do it in an 'aw, shucks' manner and make it work."

Not all commissioners are as critical. Commissioner Bob Stewart said he once felt miffed that the Rays were spending so much time courting St. Petersburg officials.

But no more.

"They have big fish to fry and major issues to solve," Stewart said. "They need to spend their time where that's required, and right now I think that's with the St. Pete city government, the citizens in St. Petersburg and the development proposals that are pending."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

Pinellas willing to work with Rays on stadium finances 04/21/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:25pm]

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