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Stadium takeover may cause problems

Property Appraiser Rob Turner has told Hillsborough County commissioners that their plan to take over ownership of Raymond James Stadium may present more problems than they realize.

In a memo to commissioners, Turner said the deal could trigger a provision that would allow the New York Yankees to pursue a more favorable agreement on its holdings in town.

Further, he says, his office is not willing to conduct appraisals on those parts of the stadium, such as luxury boxes, that will remain taxable under the new deal. That would mean that those areas would become subject to dueling appraisals by the county and the owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, opening the door to potential disputes.

"I just wanted to make sure they had some clarity (on these issues)," Turner said. "If they feel these issues wouldn't have made a difference, that's their decision."

Officials with the Tampa Sports Authority said the Yankees already have as good a deal at Legends Field as any sports team in town. So the "most favored treatment" provision wouldn't come into play, they said.

"The last time I checked, Legends Field and the pedestrian walkway that leads to it are owned by the county, so there are no taxes," Henry Saavedra, executive director for the sports authority, while acknowledging they do have to pay half the taxes on their practice facility near at Himes and Columbus avenues.

Authority officials also said they anticipated Turner's reluctance to a specialized appraisal, which is why the new agreement includes a backup method for calculated taxes owed by the Buccaneers.

Commissioners voted last week to take ownership of Raymond James Stadium to settle a dispute over its tax bill that has festered for the better part of five years. The issue drew to a head two years ago when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that sports arenas owned by local governments are taxable.

That forced the sports authority to have to pay the nearly $5-million annual property tax bill on the stadium, money it doesn't have. Under terms of the agreements that led to construction of the stadium, Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa have to pay any shortfalls in the sports authority budget. The county alone last year paid $1.6-million.

However, the court ruling doesn't apply to counties. By having the county take over the stadium, the tax bill goes away, except for small parts like skyboxes for which the Bucs pay taxes.

Commissioner Jan Platt, who was opposed to the county taking over the stadium, said she thinks that Turner's memo shows her board acted in haste. She said she's hoping that the sports authority and city of Tampa evaluate the information it contains before signing off on the ownership swap.

"In my opinion, the county taxpayers didn't make a dime on this deal," Platt said. "This just further indicates that the county bought itself a headache and probably no tax relief."

Turner's memo notes that there can be substantial difference in valuations. By using the method provided in the memo for calculating the Buccaneers tax bill, disputes could be substantial. His office is in court fighting a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team challenge of its tax bill on the St. Pete Times Forum. The team says the building is only worth $30-million. Turner's office appraised it at $120-million.

Additionally, his memo suggests there should be a thorough review of the sports authority budget if the county is going to be responsible for its budgetary shortfalls. And he says there is nothing in the new agreement explaining what happens on tangible property taxes.

Saavedra said the county already has to approve the sports authority's annual budget. And authority attorney John Van Voris said tangible property inside the stadium also would be owned by the county and that anything the Bucs own will be assessed, and the tax bill paid to the state Department of Revenue.