ST. PETERSBURG — City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett on Tuesday made the strongest comments yet against a waterfront stadium, saying he is unsure how the financial deal presented by the Tampa Bay Rays can be good for St. Petersburg.
"We need to ask, 'Is this in the best interest of the city?' " Bennett told the St. Petersburg Times. "We need to start asking these questions today.
"Right now, I am not so sure," he said. "This is a horrible time to be talking about selling real estate. It is a rough time to be talking about taxes."
Other council members said on Tuesday that they were awaiting answers about the Rays' complex $450-million plan, but echoed Bennett's concerns.
The council must decide on June 5 whether to schedule a referendum on the proposed stadium this year. Without a clearer financial picture by then, a majority of council members told the Times they would not approve a referendum.
"If the Rays really want this project, it's going to be up to them to get us the answers in a timely manner," said council member Jeff Danner. "To me, this is their project. They've got to convince me this is a good plan. If they can do it by June 5, great. If they can't, fine. We'll move on."
Rays officials say they are as eager as Bennett and others to begin discussing a prospective deal.
On Tuesday, team senior vice president Michael Kalt promised a proposal ahead of the June 5 vote, and said it also likely would address the outstanding debt on Tropicana Field.
Kalt said the city has asked for time to perform its own analysis.
"We have outlines of a financial plan that we think is a good framework to begin discussions with the city," Kalt said. "Frankly, we will begin those discussions the moment the city engages us."
Bennett's comments, similar to remarks he made on a local talk radio show on Monday, are the closest a city official has come to outright rejecting the Rays' proposal since the team announced its plans late last year.
He says he can still be persuaded to support the stadium, or at least to put the question to voters in November, but the window of opportunity is closing.
He suggested the Rays put up more money — the team has pledged $150-million — to sweeten the pot.
"They need to broach this as a partnership," Bennett said. "We want a ball team to stay here. We are willing to do certain things, but we don't have any money."
The City Council is scheduled to decide May 1 whether to begin negotiations with a developer on the possible sale of Tropicana Field. A vote on a possible referendum would follow a month later.
Council members, inundated with questions from residents, are getting antsy.
"The discussion that has not yet taken place is on the finances," council member Herb Polson said. "I'm trying to collect facts right now, and I don't have all of them. I need them before June 5. And I don't mean the night of June 4."
Council member Jim Kennedy offered a similar opinion.
"I would think the City Council has to be convinced — whether it be the Rays staff or the developer — that this is a good economic deal for the city," he said. "If that burden can't be met, I don't see putting something on a ballot."
Team officials say they believe the deal will not require new or additional taxes, or divert existing tax revenues. The plan would rely, however, on the taxes generated from the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.
How that would work is what Rays officials are still figuring out.
Kalt says the team has hired a financial adviser and is crunching numbers.
In general, he said, the team believes it has a way to insulate the city from risk and address the projected $50-million of local debt remaining on Tropicana Field in 2012.
Kalt said: "The last time I checked, the deadline is June 5, not April 15."