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No bucks for the Bucs? // Tuesday's sales tax defeats cast some gloom on stadium plans

Will voters who said no to new taxes for schoolchildren and police say yes to a tax to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

That nagging question echoed through Hillsborough County on Wednesday in the aftermath of the resounding defeat a day earlier of two half-cent sales tax referendums to raise money for school construction and public safety.

For some elected officials, the answer seemed clear.

"I wouldn't think they'd vote for it," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Jim Norman. "If I were Malcolm Glazer, my view would be that the taxpayers don't want to pay any more."

Norman and other county commissioners _ whose consent is critical to any stadium financing _ renewed a pledge Wednesday to take any tax question involving stadium construction to a constituency already in revolt.

"I am not going to vote to increase taxes for a new stadium, whether it's sales taxes, a restaurant tax or whatever," said Norman, who has been joined in his sentiments by Commissioner Ed Turanchik. They say any tax increase for a stadium _ even one the commission could levy itself _ would have to be approved by voters.

"It's not my money," Norman said. "It's the taxpayers'."

Members of a special task force in charge of devising a financing plan for a new stadium found themselves repudiating perceived links between the failed referendums and public financing for a $168-million stadium.

Steve Anderson, chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority, emphasized the differences between the referendums and the stadium effort. Taxpayers were asked to approve far more money in the referendums _ $828.7-million over 10 years _ he pointed out, and the stadium would be "a true public-private partnership that has a tremendous economic impact on the community."

Still, the referendums' defeat makes the tough question of how to pay for the stadium even tougher.

"Inevitably, some public money is going to be needed," Anderson said. "I don't know where it's coming from."

Glazer, the Palm Beach financier who paid a record $192-million for the Bucs, has said he will help pay for a new stadium. Without it, he will lose millions annually, and officials believe Glazer would be forced to relocate the team if a stadium isn't built.

Orlando, among other cities, stands ready to put the welcome mat out for the Bucs. Officials there, while commiserating over the referendum results Wednesday, reiterated that they have the taxing power ready to make a new home for the franchise.

"We of course are disappointed that Tampa is suffering through some serious budget issues," said Randy Johnson, president of the Orlando Area Sports Commission. The group promotes sports activities in Central Florida and passed a resolution last month to bring the Bucs to Orlando if Glazer decided to move.

"We are in a unique situation in having 30-million tourists come through our area a year," Johnson said. "So we are in a position to bond a stadium. And we believe the NFL would smile on a move to Orlando if a move had to be made. There's no question in my mind we could sell out the stadium here."

Orlando's recently revamped Citrus Bowl would need additional renovation to make it state-of-the-art. But Orlando and Orange County have approved use of an estimated $13-million annually from tourist development taxes for sports facilities. With bonding, that could become $150-million. The money is earmarked first for a new baseball stadium _ if businessman Norton Herrick can lure a franchise to Orlando. But the deal with Herrick expires in a year.

At noon Wednesday, a banquet room full of community leaders steeled themselves against the possibility they'd ever witness Glazer abandoning One Buc Place. The occasion was a luncheon put on by the Sports Council of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Outback Steakhouse chief executive officer Chris Sullivan, who gave the keynote address, talked about why a new stadium was good business for Tampa Bay.

"We knew we were going to need a new stadium," said Sullivan, who was part of an ownership group that made a $163.5-million bid for the Bucs in January. "I'm glad as hell we don't own (the team) right now."

Sullivan emphasized the huge economic effect of the Bucs, the jobs the team creates, the charities it supports, as well as the national recognition the team brings to Tampa.

"When you have Chris Berman talking about the Big Sombrero on ESPN, how do you ever replace that?" Sullivan asked. "Imagine it's January, and we're in the playoffs and people in New York with 10 feet of snow on the ground are watching us down here in the sunshine."

Sullivan admitted the "greatest challenge" was finding the public funds not just for a new stadium, but also for education and law enforcement needs.

"Not building a new stadium would be a step back," he said. "We had to build an airport. St. Petersburg had to build a dome. We had to build an arena.

"It's going to cost us $200-million to do this, but it will generate millions more over the rest of our lives."

Task force officials figure $50-million to $100-million in public money may be required to build a new stadium. With property taxes never considered, and sales taxes impractical, some task force members have focused on a restaurant tax.

Former Mayor Sandy Freedman first advanced the idea: a 1 percent tax on food and beverage sales amounting to a dime on a $10 dinner tab. It's a tax that could be enacted by a local legislative bill and without a referendum _ if a majority of county commissioners bought the idea.

But that last-ditch plan has its opponents, even among stadium boosters.

After his pitch for a new stadium Wednesday, Sullivan was asked by a Times reporter about a restaurant tax. He said it wasn't viable.

"We don't want to open up that revenue source," Sullivan said. "It would be putting the burden on restaurant-goers. It's not the way to go."

Sullivan couldn't pinpoint where the public money might come from. Neither could Malcolm Glazer's son, Joel, or Anderson, the sports authority chairman and stadium task force member.

Joel Glazer said his family was disappointed in the defeat of the referendums but remain "committed to this area."

"We're working on how to come up with a solution to pay for the stadium," he said. "We don't have it yet."