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Mayor hopes to keep taxes level, baseball or no

The prognosis for the city's financial health after Monday's baseball news is good in the short term and bad in the long term. The good news is that the city won't have to outfit the Florida Suncoast Dome for baseball. That could have cost the city millions and might have forced up the tax rate.

As it stands now, city officials say, the tax rate likely won't go up.

The bad news is that the city's tax base won't benefit from the extra jobs and businesses a baseball team would bring. Down the road, that could mean lean times.

"The immediate impact of not getting baseball is advantageous because we won't have this additional debt," said Tom Oberhofer, chairman of the budget review committee for the Council of Neighborhood Associations. "But long-term, it's not a good move. Frankly, I'd rather pay now and stimulate the city's economy."

Mayor David Fischer hopes taxpayers won't fear an increase in their property tax rate just because the city isn't getting a baseball team.

Although it won't be easy, Fischer is convinced the city can hold the line and even decrease property taxes during the next few years while its loan payments are at their peak.

"Our taxes are going down," Fischer said. "This won't affect that. I want to demonstrate that we're carrying the expense of the stadium, and it won't get much worse. We're handling it fine."

However, even Fischer acknowledges that the next two years will be "crunch time." The city's payment on the stadium debt will be $3.9-million in fiscal year 1992, which begins Oct. 1. During that year, its total debt will be $17-million.

The following two fiscal years will present the biggest challenge for city officials. While the stadium debt payments in those years actually will decrease slightly, other city debt payments will increase. Total debt payments will peak in fiscal year 1993 at $17.9-million. In 1994, they will be $17.8-million.

To complicate matters, those who manage the Dome recently have asked city officials for more money to run the facility. Last month, city officials approved an additional $250,000 so Dome managers could make their payroll. That allocation meant the Dome's subsidy rose from $1.36-million to about $1.6-million. It could go as high as $1.96-million before the year is done.

This is where baseball could have had an immediate, positive financial impact on the city.

In the first few years of an expansion team, attendance likely would have been good, and the city might have received enough revenues to offset the subsidy it pays to run the Dome.

However, in order to get that benefit, the city would have had to buy artificial turf, scoreboards and other items to make the stadium ready for baseball.

Last month, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed a bill that could funnel $23-million in tax dollars to the city for the needed improvements. Although city officials hoped it was enough, no estimates were released.

Consider this: When the city was trying to lure the Chicago White Sox in 1988, officials estimated it would cost $20-million to outfit the Dome for baseball. That does not include an additional $12.6-million the city has since committed to more parking near the Dome _ money that officials have promised will be repaid from the state package. It also does not include inflation since 1988.

Oberhofer said it is apparent to him the city would have had to borrow money to make the stadium baseball-ready.

Oberhofer and others say the prospect of a Dome without baseball means the city will have to work even harder to book other events.

"It just means that we're going to have to subsidize it as much as we are now and look for ways to reduce that," said Vice Mayor Connie Kone. "We'll have to try to get more event days for the Dome. We can try to get other sports. It is a multipurpose stadium."

The bad news about baseball alone probably will have little effect on Bay Plaza, St. Petersburg's downtown redevelopment project that is stalled by the recession.

The Kansas City developers trying to gather tenants for the project previously have said they were drawn to develop the $200-million retail district in St. Petersburg for reasons other than baseball.

"We just looked at baseball as icing on the cake," said Lee Fowler, a vice president with Bay Plaza developer J.C. Nichols Co.

_ Staff writers Thomas C. Tobin and Mark Albright contributed to this report.