Pinellas bed tax money should not be set aside for a new roof for Tropicana Field. Homeowners don't put new roofs on houses they plan to tear down, and tax dollars should not be spent on a new roof on an aging stadium that has no long-term future. What St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Pinellas County commissioners and the Tampa Bay Rays should be talking about is whether to preserve bed tax money to help pay for a new stadium — not a new stadium roof — before that money winds up going to a Clearwater aquarium, a Dunedin spring training facility or an Oldsmar BMX track. There is too much silence and not enough talking about a pivotal question that should not be answered by ignoring it.
There is about to be a gold rush in Pinellas. Some $6 million a year in bed tax money will become available in 2015 after the primary bonds are paid off on Tropicana Field. The County Commission voted unanimously last month to adjust the allowable uses of the money to include aquariums, and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium wants some to help finance a new home in downtown Clearwater. Dunedin and Oldsmar also are expected to submit applications for the money this fall. But there has been no significant public discussion about preserving bed tax money for a new baseball stadium.
That may be why members of the Kriseman administration suddenly floated the suggestion this month that some of the bed tax money may be needed for a new roof for the Trop, surprising top Rays officials and City Council members. The mayor later dismissed that suggestion, and if it was an attempt to create a placeholder for some bed tax money it was a clumsy one.
Too many years already have passed without directly addressing the Rays' obvious need for a new stadium to replace the outdated Trop. Kriseman and Rays officials have been meeting privately to negotiate an agreement that would enable the team to look for potential stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The signals are encouraging, and a deal should be possible by the end of the year. Then the Rays presumably would need about two years to evaluate sites in both counties. While the Rays clearly would prefer to be in Tampa, the team has not ruled out Pinellas.
Yet St. Petersburg and Pinellas could play themselves out of contention if county officials divide up the bed tax money that now pays the Trop bonds. Without it, Pinellas would have no hope of cobbling together the revenue streams to help pay for a stadium that could cost more than $500 million.
Pinellas Commissioner Charlie Justice mused in February that it seemed as though it already had been decided the bed tax money would go for other uses because nobody was talking about a baseball stadium. That still seems to be the case, and it's time for an honest conversation. The time lines for dividing up the bed tax money and searching for sites for a new stadium are out of whack, and that should be resolved. And the Kriseman administration, the Tourist Development Council and the Rays need to address the bed tax money publicly and directly.
If the consensus is the Pinellas bed tax money could be better spent on other projects besides a baseball stadium, that's one thing. But don't let that decision be made by avoiding any talk of baseball. And don't play games by trying to peel off bed tax money for a roof on an outdated stadium.