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TAMPA FUNDS COULD SHIFT TO HILLSBOROUGH

But the proposed deal would keep a focus on downtown projects.

As the value of downtown Tampa real estate has grown since the 1980s, it has generated millions of dollars a year in new property taxes.

But because of a deal that goes back three decades, Hillsborough County officials have watched every penny of their share of that new revenue go to City Hall to aid in downtown redevelopment.

Now that could change.

While the city would enjoy continuing to get everything, a new city-county proposal could let the county keep most of the money it now contributes to downtown redevelopment.

Still, the city and county could work together to put up as much as $50 million each in redevelopment funds, for a total of up to $100 million of financing, to support future downtown projects.

This comes as Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's planned entertainment district, a new Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium and other big ideas emerge as potential contenders for the money.

"We're excited to be a part of it," Hillsborough's chief financial administrator Bonnie Wise said. "We think that there are going to be some great improvements to the downtown."

However, the county also would end up keeping tens of millions of dollars under the proposal that it could spend in other parts of Hillsborough.

With the downtown Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, scheduled to expire, Tampa and Hillsborough officials have spent about a year in on-and-off negotiations to extend it.

Briefly, here's their proposal:

- Extend the CRA until 2043.

- Limit the county's CRA contribution over those 28 years to $52 million. Of that, up to $50 million would be pledged to provide infrastructure for one or more private development projects.

- Tie that pledge - it could be $50 million, it could be less - to a redevelopment project agreement with City Hall that would match the county's contribution.

- Give the county an out: If the two governments didn't enter into a redevelopment project agreement, the county would keep all of its share of the CRA funds. The proposed target date for drafting that project agreement is May.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn would love to keep the historic split of the CRA funds - all for the city, none for the county - but that's "not going to happen."

"It's the best deal for both the city and the county," he said. "I think that will provide seed money moving forward for the next 30 years that will allow us to do a lot more."

The proposed CRA changes are being raised at a critical time. That's because of all the projects poised to jockey for a share of future CRA revenues, currently totalling more than $15 million a year.

Three years ago, for example, Buckhorn said the CRA funds could, in theory, be spent on roads and infrastructure for a new downtown stadium for the Rays.

That's still possible, but these days Buckhorn first mentions Vinik's plans - including, maybe, a new medical school for the University of South Florida - for 24 acres around Amalie Arena.

Buckhorn expects Vinik's master plan will be "certainly the first one out of the box" for the possible use of CRA funds.

"What will happen (with Vinik's property) is probably going to come to us sooner than any other project - sooner than transit, sooner than any discussion of baseball," Buckhorn said.

"I think they're ready to go," he said. "Once they lay out the master plan, they're going to have a feel for what their needs are, where the county and the city can be helpful. Out of that will come an opportunity."

By law, CRA funds must be spent in the area where they are generated. They also are restricted to certain uses, including building or realigning roads, improving drainage, water and sewer, providing parking or landscaping, or doing other infrastructure projects needed to facilitate private development.

City officials have had conversations about doing this kind of work in conjunction with Vinik's master development, but there's no formal agreement, said Bob McDonaugh, Buckhorn's top economic development aide. Vinik's holdings, except for the Channelside Bay Plaza complex, are in the downtown CRA.

The County Commission could consider the CRA extension as soon as next week. Over the 28 years of the extension, officials estimatethe county could end up keeping at least $280 million that it now gives away.

The City Council, which sits as Tampa's Community Redevelopment Agency, would consider the proposal after county approval.

Meanwhile, officials say there's no shortage of other ideas for the downtown CRA. Those include mass transit, renovations to the Tampa Convention Center, the creation of downtown pocket parks andtrain horn "quiet zones," improvements to cultural facilities, and conversion of one-way roads to flow both ways.

"I can sit here and in five minutes think of 10 things in the future that are going to need to be done," McDonaugh said. "Some of them, the county might go, 'That's a great idea. Enjoy yourself.' And some of them they might say, 'Yeah, we'd be willing to invest money in that.'"

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FAST FACTS

How it works

Starting in 1983, with an addition in 1988, officials created a downtown community redevelopment area covering 870 acres. In that area, they added up the total assessed taxable property value - $454 million. The property taxes generated by that $454 million base since have continued to be split between the city and the county just like any other property taxes. Meanwhile, the total assessed taxable value of property there has grown. It's now more than $1.7 billion. The city has gotten the county's share of the new revenue generated by the growth in property values above the base value. In 2015, that revenue is expected to top $15 million. Currently the city uses most of that money, about $13.5 million a year, to repay bonds for building the convention center. The bonds are set to be paid off in October 2015, freeing the money for other uses.

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