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Lightning wins round in tax fight

The Tampa Bay Lightning won another battle in the war with Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner over the team's tax bills.

Friday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal let stand an August 2003 Circuit Court decision that lowered the tax assessment of the St. Pete Times Forum from $110-million to $25.5-million, saving the team about $6-million for tax years 1999 through 2001.

Lightning officials, riding the high of winning the Stanley Cup but also embroiled in a leaguewide management dispute with the players union that could wipe out the season, said they were pleased about the appellate decision, but were low-key about the team's fiscal future.

"We will get some dollars back, but we spent more than $1-million fighting this case because we could not afford to lose it," said team president Ron Campbell.

Built in part with tax dollars for an estimated $158-million in the mid 1990s, the 20,000-seat building is home to the NHL club, concerts, ice shows and the circus. Because the facility is an unusual special-use structure, Turner appraised it based on the cost of construction.

The Lightning's parent company, Palace Sports & Entertainment, challenged Turner's assessment, saying the venue was functionally obsolete and should be assessed on its ability to generate income. In the five years beginning in 1999, the Lightning said, the Times Forum racked up $54-million in operating losses.

After a trial a year ago, Circuit Judge James Barton II sided with the Lightning, ruling that while sports teams sell for millions and millions, their home arenas are worth on the open market "a fraction of their cost."

Though showing a $3.6-million profit last year, the Lightning saw salaries jumping by $16-million this year before the lockout was instituted, and still seeks public help in the way of additional parking revenue or ticket surcharges.

Turner, elected to a third consecutive term as appraiser last month, said Friday he was disappointed the appellate court offered no guidance on the arena assessment issue, and will therefore aggressively approach the valuation problem in coming years.

"We still believe the appraisal technique we used is valid," Turner said. "I think if our taxpayers spend millions to build and maintain this building, then their investment should be taken into account when we consider value."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at testermansptimes.com.

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