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Pinellas commission to discuss extending tourist tax as possible stadium funding source

It's years before a new stadium would be a reality for the Tampa Bay Rays, but money to help build one could be lined up by November.

Part of Pinellas County's tax on hotel stays will be reserved for a new stadium if the County Commission agrees.

A majority of the seven-member board has expressed support heading into a discussion at a meeting today. The board is expected to approve the proposal for a public hearing and final vote on Nov. 16.

"Tourism has to be an important part of our economy," said County Commissioner Calvin Harris. "This is a good plan for us and the city (of St. Petersburg)."

Pinellas imposes a tax of 5 cents per each dollar spent on lodging, such as hotel and motel rooms. The tax brings in about $25 million a year, which mostly goes to marketing, beach renourishment and sports facilities.

The "fourth cent" from the tax is dedicated to pay part of Tropicana Field's annual debt. It expires in 2015 when the debt is paid, and under Florida law, so would the "fifth cent."

Under the plan, the fourth cent would be extended permanently, and up to 80 percent of the annual revenue from it could go to a new baseball stadium. The plan would need five votes to pass.

Without factoring in growth, the ABC Coalition, the community group that studied stadium issues, estimated the tax could produce $70 million — a key contribution to a stadium that could cost upwards of $500 million.

The fifth cent also would live on for tourism promotion. But to broaden support, private nonprofit organizations like museums and youth sports groups would now be able to use the tax.

That was part of a deal with the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, which sought $2.5 million from the tax to help finish a new museum that's cash-strapped.

But there's a quirk.

While museums would have to be within Pinellas County to use money from the tax, a new ballpark would not, according to the proposed ordinance extending the tax.

"What do you mean it's not limited to Pinellas County?" Commissioner Ken Welch said after being asked about the proposal. "Well, like I said, I've still got to read the details. … (But) there's no way this commission would support that money going outside Pinellas."

The Rays have expressed interest in looking at Hillsborough County for a new home field, and County Administrator Bob LaSala this year said he wouldn't rule out using Pinellas money for a stadium outside Pinellas. Meanwhile, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has pressed to limit potential sites to within the St. Petersburg city limits or close by.

Chief Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long, who wrote the measure, said it merely mirrors state law, and no one directed him to allow use of the tax outside Pinellas County. Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel, who also heads the Tourist Development Council that oversees the tourist tax, said a Pinellas-only clause never came up in repeated meetings to hammer out the plan.

The commission could add a limitation to keep the stadium money in Pinellas, Long said.

"Why would we spend Pinellas-generated revenue outside the county?" asked Foster, who downplayed that the idea would ever happen.

The geography issue was just one of many concerns for Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who questioned the tax extension.

"I'm very concerned anytime we take a temporary tax and make it a permanent tax, especially with the plans for the future stadium undefined," Bostock said.

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

Pinellas commission to discuss extending tourist tax as possible stadium funding source 10/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 25, 2010 11:40pm]
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