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Leaders split on using downtown Tampa tax for Rays ballpark


Published:   |   Updated: June 10, 2013 at 07:01 AM

TAMPA - Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's staff caused a stir 18 months ago when they said the city might be able to generate $100 million for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium from downtown property taxes.

That could go a long way toward helping to pay for a potential $500 million or $600 million ballpark. Today, though, it looks like Buckhorn will have to fight to protect those potential stadium dollars from other hungry eyes.

At least one county commissioner, Victor Crist, believes Hillsborough County has a right to some of that money, which would eat into the pot of money available for a future stadium. Meantime, the chairman of the governmental entity that controls those dollars, Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick, doesn't approve of using them for a sports stadium.

The pot of money in question won't come up for debate for two more years, but already people are making plans to claim it.

"It is a source of revenue that will have everybody's attention," County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said.

The pot of money in question belongs to the Downtown Tampa Community Redevelopment Area, a special taxing district under Tampa City Council control that funds projects to improve downtown. That district keeps a cut of the property taxes generated downtown through a complex process called tax-increment financing, or TIF.

Its cut of the property tax pie is no small sum, nearly $13 million this fiscal year.

At the moment, most of that money is spoken for. The Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, currently uses nearly all of that $13 million to pay down bonds for the Tampa Convention Center. However, by 2015 those bonds will be paid off and the money will be freed up. That's where the stadium comes in.

In October 2011, a group of businessmen from the Tampa and St. Petersburg chambers of commerce was studying how to pay for a new Rays stadium. The group approached Buckhorn's staff at the city and asked them how much Tampa, theoretically, could put toward a stadium.

The answer: as much as $100 million. The city theoretically could raise that much by issuing bonds, paid for with that $12 million or $13 million in annual property tax revenue.

That got the public's attention, but it came with a few caveats.

First, Buckhorn and his staff stressed that they weren't committing to anything and were just speculating about what is possible. Second, Buckhorn has said the city might be willing to commit tax dollars to the roads and infrastructure surrounding a new stadium, but less likely to help pay for the stadium itself.

Finally, Buckhorn has insisted that he isn't trying to lure the Rays away from St. Petersburg.

Eighteen months after floating the idea, it's still on the mayor's mind.

On May 30, Buckhorn was speaking to a group of young professionals affiliated with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce when someone asked about a possible Rays stadium. Buckhorn told the audience that the $100 million of downtown money is a possible funding source.

Last week, though, the mayor's idea to dedicate that money for a potential future stadium looked dicey, if not imperiled.

Crist, the county commissioner, said Hillsborough County deserves a cut of the money generated downtown through tax-increment financing. About half of the $13 million raised every year actually comes from county taxes, while roughly the other half comes from city taxes, said Bonnie Wise, Hillsborough County's chief financial administrator.

Up to now, the County Commission has allowed the city to keep all of the money to use for important downtown projects, such as the Tampa Convention Center. However, the Downtown Tampa Community Redevelopment Area must be reauthorized in 2015, and the city and county are in early negotiations about the issue. For now, it's not clear the County Commission will forgo its cut of the money any longer

Crist, for example, yearns for a major renovation of the blighted neighborhoods around the University of South Florida in Tampa. Perhaps, Hillsborough County could keep some or all of the money it turns over to the city every year and use the savings on the university area and other county needs, he said.

"In previous years, the county has just said yes and gotten nothing in return," Crist said last week. "If it's that important to the city and the mayor, why not make it a fair exchange?"

The mayor disagrees, of course. He says Hillsborough County gets huge benefits from downtown Tampa projects such as the convention center, which helps fill hotels all over the county.

He'd like all the money to continue to be available for big downtown projects, such as a new stadium or a major entertainment complex, which Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is contemplating.

"That is my hope," Buckhorn said. "That is what I'm hoping for the county."

Among other county commissioners, Higginbotham said he hasn't studied the issue yet and doesn't know where he stands. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan appears to be in the mayor's camp.

Hagan wants to consider the county's needs for the money, but he also wants a provision written into the Community Redevelopment Area's new contract, naming a Rays stadium or any major project by Vinik as priorities for the money. He specified Vinik because the Lightning owner has poured about $40 million of his money into renovating the Forum.

"It's important to determine what our mutual (city and county) priorities are," Hagan said. "I believe those are two of them."

Reddick, the Tampa councilman, has a foot in two camps. He chairs the Tampa Community Redevelopment Agency, the entity that oversees the downtown taxing district and several similar tax-increment financing districts in Tampa.

Reddick agrees with the mayor that Hillsborough County shouldn't seek a cut of the downtown tax money. But, he bristled when he heard about Buckhorn's idea to steer up to $100 million toward a stadium. The city didn't create the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area years ago with a stadium in mind, Reddick said.

Ultimately, it's not the mayor's call, he said.

"It did raise an eyebrow when I read that, but I also had the thought process that the CRA board would have to make that determination as well as the residents of that TIF district," Reddick said.

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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