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Judge: Rewrite one section of stadium deal

Circuit Judge Sam Pendino came out and said Wednesday what some people assumed he meant all along:

If local governments and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers change the one unconstitutional section of their deal for an NFL stadium, he will let officials borrow $205-million to build it.

The judge said this even as he denied a request by government attorneys to simply strike out the offending part of the contract, which gives the Bucs the first $2-million in revenue from non-football events at the stadium like rock concerts and soccer games.

"I do not believe I have the authority to remake this contract," Pendino said. ". . . If you do work this out, let me know. I will modify my final judgment and validate the bonds."

Keeping the Bucs, Pendino said, will generate "major economic benefits, substantial economic benefits" for the local economy.

Public officials said the problem of more contract negotiations with the Bucs, though, pales in comparison to the difficulties that would arise should former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe take his stadium challenge to the Florida Supreme Court _ a plan he has promised from the start of his lawsuit.

If Pendino approves a revised stadium agreement, Poe could appeal. It could take six months or a year to conclude and would prevent borrowing to build an NFL stadium on time, officials say. The Bucs say their continued cooperation hinges on having a new place to play by September of next year.

"We can't have the stadium in 1998, and we can't have the 2001 Super Bowl if there is an appeal," said County Commissioner Jim Norman.

Poe wasn't specific about what sort of new stadium deal might cause him to drop his appeal. But he did indicate it would have to look very different from the present one, which is financed by $319-million in sales tax money and figures to make the Bucs up to $16-million in additional revenue a year.

An uncommon dialogue took place in the courtroom after Pendino's ruling Wednesday afternoon. More than a dozen television and print reporters circled around Poe and his attorney to ask him, in a variety of ways, what he wanted.

Even Mayor Dick Greco leaned close to hear what Poe would say. For Greco and his fellow stadium supporters, the answers weren't good.

Would Poe approve a 50-50 split of non-football revenues between the public and the Bucs? No comment, said his attorney, Chris Bentley.

Poe offered that, in continuing to fight the deal, he felt he was representing himself and the public.

"I don't have anything to gain," he said.

Asked what would have to occur to satisfy him, Poe replied, "the Bucs to build the stadium."

How much tax money would have to be removed from the stadium deal to win his approval?

"I really don't have a position on that," Poe said. He said there was already a great deal of taxpayer property locked into the deal _ in the land, the roads and the sewers at the stadium site.

Did he still intend to appeal to the Supreme Court, if Pendino approves a revised deal?

"I'll wait and see until that comes," Poe said.

The appeal would pose a number of problems for the stadium builders. First, the existence of a pending court case would deter people from investing in the stadium project's bonds.

And, should the Supreme Court rule that the NFL stadium deal is unconstitutional, the local governments could be out all the money they would have poured into the stadium project to date. Today that number is somewhere between $20-million and $30-million. If the appeal takes a year, which County Attorney Emmy Acton said might happen, that number could be much closer to the full $168-million stadium construction price.

Public officials said after the hearing that there would soon be more talks with the Bucs to renegotiate the troublesome clause. Poe said the government hasn't tried to talk to him yet.

The Bucs continued to say Wednesday they needed a new stadium by 1998. Public officials already have begun to discuss ways of building the new stadium while working the Poe matter out.

Greco and County Commissioner Ed Turanchik have discussed building a "community stadium" _ one lacking the luxury suites and club seats demanded by the Bucs. Such a stadium wouldn't be subject to Poe's legal challenge, and thus might be eligible for construction loans. And if the governments eventually won the case, the NFL features could be added later.

Commissioner Joe Chillura, who last year conceived the half-cent sales tax package for schools, police equipment and the stadium, said he is now working on "gap financing" _ a way to finance ongoing construction without going to the bond market.

Pendino's decision Wednesday had the effect of resetting the clock for an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

The city, county and Tampa Sports Authority _ who are, for the time being at least, the losing side _ now will have until April 4 to appeal. If the judge reverses himself and sides against Poe, Poe will have five days to appeal.