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BILL TO HOUSE HOMELESSAT ARENAS FACES LONG ODDS

Enforcing a forgotten law could cost taxpayers.

An improbable bill that traces its roots to St. Petersburg's baseball-hungry past theoretically could cost Tampa Bay taxpayers as much as $108 million.

The bill - backed by a crusading Bradenton senator who hates subsidies for professional sports teams - would enforce a long-forgotten law that required stadiums and arenas to double as homeless shelters.

It created a stir Monday by passing a Senate committee. But on Tuesday key officials predicted the bill has little shot at passing in its present form because it exposes taxpayers to risk.

"When you look around the state at a lot of the communities involved, if it ever gets to the floor, I assure you I will work very hard to change it,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

"I'm not going to lose sleep over it,'' said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. "Somebody proposing such a thing does not understand the complexities of maintaining a shelter. It's not just a building. It's services. It's security. It's food services and places for proper hygiene.

"The idea that when the Rays are out of town we are going to use their locker room to provide homeless services is ludicrous.''

Actually, Tropicana Field was where the idea first got started.

St. Petersburg was wooing the Chicago White Sox in 1988 when the Pinellas legislative delegation proposed a novel way to finance dome upgrades: Sales taxes collected in the stadium could underwrite more construction bonds. The hotly debated measure came down to the last day of the session, with Sen. Jack Gordon, a powerful Miami Beach Democrat, making a successful demand that the dome double as a homeless shelter.

"We didn't foresee it as any kind of homeless shelter on a permanent basis,'' former Pinellas Sen. Curtis Kiser said Tuesday. "I could see it simply as a backup facility for emergencies, like the Superdome during Katrina, or those nights three or four times in the winter season when you have below freezing temperatures.''

None of it ever happened. But the dome and 17 other new stadiums and arenas around the state used the sales tax rebate technique to attract or keep professional sports teams. These included Tropicana Field, which has collected $35 million over the years, the Tampa Bay Times Forum ($32.6 million), Raymond James Stadium ($30 million), Bright House Field in Clearwater ($5.1 million) and Grant Field in Dunedin ($5.1 million)

Now Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, wants that money back.

His bill would require professional sports franchises to document "that a homeless shelter has been operating at the sports facility'' every month from when the team started playing.

If not, sales tax funds advanced by the state for construction would have to be refunded. If stadiums don't double as shelters by Jan. 1, the owner would be fined.

Bennett said his main target is rich sports team owners who benefit from the public dole.

"If you can afford to pay somebody $10 million to throw a football or baseball, certainly you can afford to pay for your own stadium,'' Bennett said. "If I am cutting money on Medicaid, if I am cutting money on homeless programs and education, then those people who have broken the law can pay what they owe.''

But in fact, only one stadium listed by legislative analysts - the Miami Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium - is owned by a team that received the sales tax exemption. The other 17 are owned by cities, counties or public sports authorities. Refunds would be borne by taxpayers.

Latvala said he heard Tuesday from Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who was concerned about the bill's implication for spring training.

"Those are outdoor facilities. I don't know what kind of shelter you would get out of an outdoor facility,'' Latvala said.

Bennett's goal of targeting the professional teams may be worthy and "maybe we can work with him and meet his objectives in some other way,'' Latvala said, "but trying to go back 20 years and try to collect is a little ludicrous.''

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he is glad the bill passed the Community Affairs committee because Bennett tacked on an amendment that would fine NFL teams $125,000 for each game they black out, which is a Fasano idea.

But Fasano said he probably would oppose Bennett's bill on the Senate floor unless it is amended to protect the public.

"I think Sen. Bennett's message is good. It's the team and sports franchise owners who benefit from the tax break, whether it's going to them or to a sports authority,'' Fasano said.

Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough County's chief financial administrator, said she doesn't think any stadium complies with the 1988 law.

"Certainly if we had to return those monies, that would have a significant impact on our budget and the services we provide," she said.

Staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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