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Hillsborough's budget problems could sink cross-bay move by Rays

TAMPA — Proposals to build a new pro baseball stadium in Hills­borough County may be speculative at this point.

But Hillsborough officials say what's certain is that there is little public money available to help turn that prospect into concrete, should the Tampa Bay Rays direct their gaze this way. There also doesn't appear to be any political will to even broach the topic.

"It's unlikely given the financial situation of cities and counties that any government will step up with a financing plan to build a new stadium," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "And again, I think we have to be mindful that we work together as a region, not in competition with one another."

The debate over the Rays' future in St. Petersburg took a turn last week when it was confirmed that at least two groups are investigating possible baseball stadium projects in Hillsborough. One group is looking at downtown Tampa, the other at the state fairgrounds.

Those two locations were among five possible new homes for the Rays put forward by the ABC coalition, a business group formed by the city of St. Petersburg to assess the team's future. With St. Petersburg officials refusing to hear the report, Hills­borough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has invited the group to give a presentation to his board.

But practically speaking, Hillsborough County government has little room from current available tax sources to help build a stadium. What money there is in an era of government layoffs would not make a significant dent in debt payments for a stadium that could cost $500 million or more.

And no one is stepping forward to float another new tax.

"I do not support using public financing to construct a stadium," Hagan said. "Clearly, the private sector and the team will have to drive the discussions with respect to financing."

Hillsborough officials already are considering asking voters in November if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for a new rail system, more bus service and road work. They say they have no interest in adding a stadium to that list.

One wild card emerges: If that referendum makes the ballot and voters reject it, would elected officials try to revive it by sweetening the pitch with a new professional sports stadium?

A similar scenario played out in the 1990s, when voters first rejected a half-cent sales tax for roads and schools, then passed it when a new Raymond James Stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was added.

"Absolutely not," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a leading advocate of the transit tax. "I have said to the public, we have a transportation problem and need to address it, not that we have a transportation problem and we need a new stadium."

Short of that, it's hard to see where county government could drum up significant tax dollars.

There's the Community Investment Tax, the half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1996 to help pay for roads, schools and Raymond James. But almost every penny the tax will raise until it expires in 2026 is spoken for. In fact, commissioners lopped almost $300 million off the to-do list of CIT-backed projects last year because of declining sales tax revenue.

Tourist taxes? Every bit of the 5-cent tax on the cost of booking a hotel room in Hillsborough County is committed to debt payments and tourism promotion efforts through 2035.

"And then some," said Tim Simon, senior debt finance manager for Hillsborough County.

Each penny of the tax raises about $3.7 million annually, down from more than $4 million a few years ago. The county may be able to add one more penny to that tax, but it would require approval from the state Legislature, which is not a given.

A new stadium may qualify for up to $2 million annually in sales tax rebates, but that also would need legislative approval.

Meanwhile, at least part of the downtown Tampa proposal would be located within a Community Redevelopment Area. That means future property taxes generated in the area could be redirected back to the stadium.

But again, the sums could be comparatively small, especially if stadium developers turn the new arena over to county government — as has happened with Raymond James Stadium, the St. Pete Times Forum and the Rays' Tropicana Field — to avoid paying property taxes altogether.

Commissioner Jim Norman, a leading advocate of promoting sports as a form of economic development, says relocating the Rays could be particularly costly compared to other teams. Beyond the land and construction costs, the Rays have a contract with St. Petersburg through 2027, which could cost tens of millions to break.

He says he sees no will to even start talking about raising the kind of money needed to bring the team across the bay.

"I don't think it's possible," Norman said. "I think this is way premature."

Times staff writer Janet Zink and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough's budget problems could sink cross-bay move by Rays 02/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 7:07am]
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