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Mayor pitches final stadium finance offer

After weeks of negotiation, Mayor Rick Baker wants to issue an ultimatum over how profits from a proposed refinancing of Tropicana Field should be divided.

Under Baker's plan, the city would give Pinellas County $150,000 each year from the annual savings, estimated at $750,000 per year.

If Baker's offer is rejected, the city will use a different method for refinancing that may not save as much money, but won't require county approval, officials said.

"This is our last effort to try to resolve the situation somewhat amicably," said Andy Houston, the city's director of internal services.

The St. Petersburg City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to send Baker's proposal to the county.

But county officials say the offer is likely to be rejected. At a recent workshop, county commissioners said they would only accept $250,000 per year, or one-third of the total savings.

"I just don't think a majority of the board is going to go along with (Baker's proposal)," said Commissioner Ken Welch.

Welch said he would accept Baker's offer, but doubted his colleagues would agree. The dispute, which began in May, has sparked strong opinions from both St. Petersburg and Pinellas officials.

City leaders argue that because they pay most of the debt on the stadium, they deserve the bulk of the savings. But county officials, who technically own Tropicana Field because of a tax-saving measure enacted last year, say the money should be divided more equitably between both partners.

"The county has made every effort to be positive and supportive . . . I'm inclined to think the board's position is the correct one," said Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd.

The argument revolves around a 1993 agreement in which the city issue a $114-million bond to prepare the stadium for Major League Baseball, with the county paying part of the debt through its tourist development tax.

While the agreement allows the city to refinance the bonds to take advantage of lower interest rates, it is not clear how the savings should be shared.

If the county rejects the $150,000 offer, the city will use a different method of refinancing that won't require county permission, said Jeff Spies, St. Petersburg's treasurer. As a result, the city wouldn't have to share the money.

The only catch is the city can't act on the alternate plan until Oct. 1, when interest rates may not be as favorable, Spies added.

St. Petersburg residents pay most of the debt service and operating costs for Tropicana Field, about $10-million per year. The county pays about $3.8-million in debt services.

However, the county spared city taxpayers $1.4-million a year in property taxes by agreeing to buy the stadium from the city for $1 in September 2002. County-owned facilities are tax-exempt.

This isn't the only issue the city and county have clashed over recently. They are squabbling over who should pay for additional fire hydrants in the unincorporated area of the county known as Lealman. They have also differed on annexation and traffic signals.

Council member Richard Kriseman said he hopes the offer of $150,000 will mend the rift between the county and the city.

"It's kind of an olive branch," he said. "Obviously, there have been some rough waters as of late."

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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