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County should take over TSA

Were it anything other than a government agency, the Tampa Sports Authority would have been forced out of business long ago, a loser of millions of dollars and maker of dumb mistakes. Hillsborough County should pull the plug. The authority has lost its purpose, and keeping it only increases the power sports teams have over local government.

The authority was not supposed to evolve this way. But over time, the agency, which oversees Tampa's sports arenas, forgot its public watchdog role, and morphed into a management arm of professional sports team owners. The authority once served as a tax-dodge scheme by shielding publicly financed venues from property taxes. But the Florida Supreme Court this year stripped that away.

Hillsborough now faces a dilemma: Whether to pay the authority's tax bills or take ownership of its property, which would make the tax bill go away. The net effect of either is that the county will pay, either by paying the bill directly or by denying revenue to some agencies by taking the property off the tax roll. The cleanest decision is to pay the bill; the principle is important and the precedent worth keeping. Team owners should know that future contracts will require them to pay taxes like everybody else.

The question is how to proceed from here. state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon has agreed to file a "shell bill" for the next legislative session that could tweak the TSA. The goal should be to shift responsibility to direct county control. If the city and county could cover their debts for the authority through inter-governmental agreements, then the TSA could be shut down and its property management function shifted to county government. The only ones hurt would be the TSA board members who are used to using their position to finagle free food and liquor at Buccaneers games.

As politically unpopular as a takeover might be, imagine the public backlash if the county were to assume the sports authority's bills and still allow the TSA to manage a mess it caused. Had the authority done a better job in contract talks with the teams, the public would not be facing such a huge tax liability. Putting the sports authority out of a job and shifting its responsibilities to an elected board is the best selling point the commission has in convincing the public the county is not throwing good money after bad.