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Sports authority may get tax bill

Hillsborough's County Commission holds off deciding whether to exempt Raymond James Stadium from $5-million in property taxes.

The public could end up paying a $5-million tax bill this year on Raymond James Stadium, a publicly financed football stadium built for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Unless the Florida Supreme Court steps in, Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner will, for the first time in Tampa's history, send a property tax bill this fall to the Tampa Sports Authority, the public agency that manages the stadium.

The sports authority had a chance Wednesday to avoid the tax bill by giving Raymond James Stadium to the county, which does not pay property taxes. But the Hillsborough County Commission postponed for nine months a vote on taking the stadium off the tax rolls, effectively sticking the sports authority with the tax bill this year.

The sports authority can use a $5-million reserve fund to pay the tax this year, but after that, officials said they will turn to the county and city to cover future bills.

"The net effect is going to be to bankrupt the sports authority," said Commissioner Ben Wacksman, who wants to take the stadium off the tax rolls. "I don't see any benefit to what we did."

But four commissioners _ Pat Frank, Chris Hart, Jan Platt and Ronda Storms _ had too many questions Wednesday to make Raymond James Stadium tax-free permanently. Several commissioners feared that other professional sports owners would use the decision to avoid paying property taxes.

Storms suggested that the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team would threaten to leave Tampa if the commission did not take the Ice Palace off the tax rolls too.

"If those boys say they are going to take their toys and go home, we will have a room full of people with hockey sticks," Storms said.

And, confirming her own fears, Frank discovered in the middle of Wednesday's meeting a hidden tax benefit for the Tampa Bay Mutiny in legal documents. After questioning officials, Frank learned that the sports authority had let the Mutiny rent an office inside Raymond James Stadium.

If the commission had taken the stadium off the tax rolls, the major league soccer team would have inadvertently gotten a permanent break from paying property taxes, Frank said.

Rather than give sports teams more tax breaks, Frank said the sports authority should pay up. Schools would get about $1.8-million a year from the new taxes.

"I don't see any damage," Frank said. "The only thing is we would be giving some money to the School Board. What is so bad about that?"

Turner, the property appraiser, scoffed at the idea that public agencies, which agreed to build Raymond James Stadium for the Bucs in 1996 for $168-million, could not find money to pay $5-million in property taxes. The county's $2.2-billion budget has $30-million to $40-million in revenues other than taxes, Turner said.

The sports authority's current budget shows that the agency expected to make a gross profit of $5.6-million in the 1998-99 budget year and also maintained a $9.3-million reserve fund.

"There is no impact on the taxpayer," Turner said.

But county budget officials say that if the sports authority can't pay the tax bill after this year, they have no funds for the county's portion of the tax bill, which would be about $1.9-million. The commission can either cut services or raise taxes to pay the new expense, Assistant County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said.

The Supreme Court could still make the tax problem go away. The court will rule later this year on the constitutionality of a state law that makes sports arenas tax-exempt. Last year, the 2nd District Court of Appeal struck down the law as an unconstitutional granting of a tax exemption to the Sebring Raceway.

The court will hear oral arguments in the case in September.

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