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Stadium question back in court

As officials go to court today to rescue an NFL stadium deal, they find themselves locked into a vicious circle with no clear way out.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers said Tuesday they are willing to renegotiate the stadium deal that a judge ruled unconstitutional last week.

But first, the Bucs want assurance that stadium construction will continue _ construction for which local government has almost no remaining money.

Local governments can borrow adequate money to continue construction only if they get, among other things, a renegotiated stadium deal: the very thing the Bucs don't want to give up first.

This afternoon, government attorneys plan to ask Circuit Judge Sam Pendino for the first step in a possible way out: a new hearing. But they are expecting a fight from attorneys for former Tampa mayor Bill Poe, who have a written agreement that, they say, cuts off the county's route of escape.

"That's being stuck between a rock and a hard place," Commissioner Ed Turanchik said Tuesday.

Depending on the judge's ruling today, Turanchik said, "the stadium gets built" or "we could lose the team."

What will happen today at 3:15 p.m. is that attorneys for the city, county and the Tampa Sports Authority will ask Pendino to give them another chance to argue that the stadium deal is constitutional, according to the text of their motion.

Pendino ruled Friday that a clause giving the Bucs the first $2-million annually in non-Buccaneers revenue violated the public spirit of a taxpayer-financed stadium.

Several possible solutions have been floated, including one in which the public and the Bucs would split the non-football money 50-50.

What the Bucs said Tuesday, in effect, was that they weren't willing to agree to a solution like that _ which could cost them as much as $30-million over 30 years _ without a court approving the stadium deal first.

To try to obtain a favorable ruling, attorneys plan today to argue the doctrine of severability, which was included in the language of the stadium agreement. It says basically that even if one part of a deal is invalid, the rest is okay. Remove the decayed tooth, it is argued, and the patient can be pronounced whole again.

County Attorney Emmy Acton got the go-ahead for this plan after a closed meeting with commissioners Tuesday. State law allows commissioners to meet out of the public eye if they are discussing a lawsuit in which they are involved.

Attorneys for Poe, whose lawsuit challenging the stadium led to last week's ruling, declined to say much about the motion Tuesday, other than that they would be in court today to argue it.

In previous interviews, though, they have pointed a Dec. 23, 1996, agreement they signed along with government attorneys. That agreement forced both sides to waive most of their rights to the type of hearing being sought today as part of an effort to speed up trial proceedings.

If Pendino agrees and rejects the local governments' request for a rehearing, they still may appeal Pendino's ruling to the Florida Supreme Court. Officials said the appeal deadline is 5 p.m. today.

County Commissioner Joe Chillura said Tuesday he was told by Acton that such an appeal could take six months to a year _ drawing out a final answer on the stadium much longer than previously anticipated.

Such a wait would mean a delay in borrowing construction money and probably would cause the local governments to face millions in late penalties to the Bucs.

Even good news today for the local governments doesn't mean an end to their problems.

If the judge rules against Poe and pronounces the new stadium agreement constitutional, Poe promises to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

That, according to Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, is exactly what concerns the Bucs.

"As I see it, the Bucs would be willing to live up to Judge Pendino's ruling, and we would solve the problem except for the fact that Poe's attorneys have said they're going to appeal," Greco said late Tuesday.

"I know they could," said Greco, who has spoken to the Bucs six times in the last two days. "They could and would and want to. What's holding them up is the appeal question and wondering whether because of the salability of the bonds whether we can finish the stadium in time."

Bucs vice president Joel Glazer confirmed that view Tuesday in a one-minute statement. The team was willing to negotiate, he said, as long as it got "assurances that construction will continue."

_ Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.