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Convention price tag is shock

Most local elected officials would love to bring the Republican National Convention to town in 2004, but not if it costs taxpayers $21.8-million.

Officials across the Tampa Bay area said Wednesday they won't be able to find that kind of money, even from tourism taxes.

"It would be great to have a convention that helps fill our hotels, but we just don't happen to have a couple million dollars lying around right now," said Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, chairwoman of the Pinellas Tourist Development Council.

State leaders weren't very encouraging, either.

"I think it's great that Tampa Bay would be considered for the convention," said Johnnie Byrd, a Plant City Republican and incoming speaker of the Florida House. But "private conventions should be privately funded. It's a good Republican concept."

The organizers working to bring the convention here said initially the event would cost taxpayers no more than $10-million. But on Tuesday, they released the bid proposal they sent to the Republican National Committee. That document pegged the total public contribution at $21.8-million.

About $7-million would be in-kind donations, such as police time and use of the Tampa Convention Center. But organizers said they would need another $15-million in direct public money _ $10-million from the state and $5-million from local governments.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said he told Tampa's GOP organizers that St. Petersburg can't help with the tab. The city, he said, is coping with a significant budget shortfall.

"I've been pretty consistent with folks over there that I support it, but we're not in a position to give a lot of money," said Baker, who has strong ties to the national Republican Party, having run both Bush brothers' campaigns locally. "I think they're okay with that. Nothing has been asked of me specifically."

Gov. Jeb Bush will look at a funding request when he gets one, a spokeswoman said.

Democrats already are raising objections to the idea of state support for the Republican conclave.

"We have a problem funding our public schools," said state Sen. Les Miller, a Tampa Democrat. "To ask for $10-million, I have a grave concern about us not taking care of our home front."

Even the organizers working to bring the convention here had no answers Wednesday.

They said they hope the Legislature would contribute $10-million, noting that the state of Pennsylvania spent tax funds to help Philadelphia sponsor the 2000 Republican National Convention.

They also expect to get a share of tourism taxes paid by hotel guests.

"Those taxes are not paid by local people," said Republican developer Dick Beard, who co-chairs the local host committee.

But tourism tax dollars are in short supply these days.

In Hillsborough, revenue raised from hotel taxes has dropped 15.5 percent this year to about $8.5-million. Much of the money already is committed to paying off construction of the Ice Palace, Raymond James Stadium and Legends Field.

Other projects funded with the tax already have been cut, said Gene Gray, director of the county's economic development department.

"Our resources are pretty well tapped out," Gray said.

In Pinellas, the St. Petersburg Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau is considering borrowing up to $2.5-million to avoid additional budget cuts this year. The bureau, which expects to be asked to kick in $1-million to $2-million, won't consider the request until 2004.

Until they saw newspaper headlines Wednesday, local officials were unaware of the cost estimates, which were submitted to the Republican National Committee in June. Organizers based the estimates on Philadelphia's experience.

"We are not asking for their commitments for stuff at this point," Beard said. "We recognize that if we ask for money, then we will have to make our case. Now is not the time for that."

Organizers are preparing for an Aug. 6 visit from the Republican National Committee site selection committee, which will visit Tampa, New Orleans and New York, the three convention finalists.

The GOP committee will ask organizers in a closed-door session about Tampa's finances. But Beard said that's not the focus of the trip.

"Later on, we will have to show that we can financially (put on) this event," Beard said. "The visit is to show off our city physically."

Originally, the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, which submitted the city's bid, wanted to keep the financial plans secret until Tampa landed the convention.

But late Tuesday, in response to a public records request, the bureau let reporters look briefly at a preliminary budget and take notes. They refused to allow reporters to make copies.

"That information should have been kept private until we won or lost the thing, in my view," Beard said.

Candidates running for mayor of Tampa, who will inherit the issue when Dick Greco leaves office in 2003, are waiting to hear more about the convention budget.

"I think any time you have public funds that are going to be expended, that should be told to the public at the front end, not at the (back) end," said City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda.

Candidate Frank Sanchez said he would look closely at the convention's fiscal impact.

"I need to seek out advice from my financial counselors before I said yes or no," Sanchez said.

City Council member Bob Buckhorn was the most enthusiastic about chipping in with public money. He said the Legislature should fund the convention since it will help the entire state.

"If you look at it as an opportunity to present Florida and Tampa's best face to the people making decisions about corporate relocations, it is a worthwhile investment," he said.

_ Times staff writers Mark Albright, Jennifer Farrell, Bryan Gilmer and Bill Varian contributed to this report. David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 and karpsptimes.com.

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