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Groups question use of tax money for ballpark

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Published:   |   Updated: January 24, 2014 at 06:40 AM

TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's idea to put $100 million of downtown tax money toward a potential new Tampa Bay Rays stadium is getting a skeptical look from the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and other nonprofits.

The question is whether the bulk of that money should be reserved for a future ballpark — just a hypothetical at this point — or divvied up among many worthy causes. City Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin scheduled a workshop to discuss the subject for 9 a.m. on Feb. 13, after hearing from what she said were “many, many constituents.”

“The perception is that $100 million was being reserved for the stadium, and we all know that perception becomes reality,” Capin said. “That may or may not be the best use.”

The money in question comes from the property taxes paid by downtown Tampa landowners. Through a system called tax-increment financing, some of these taxes are steered into an entity called the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area and used for projects that benefit downtown. For now, the system generates about $12 million to $13 million per year, and those dollars are used to pay off the bonds on the Tampa Convention Center.

Various nonprofits are starting to eye that money, though. The convention center bonds will be paid off by 2016, which could free up the money for other uses.

Mayor Buckhorn has on several occasions suggested it could help make a new $500 million Rays stadium in downtown possible. For example, the city might be able to issue bonds and raise $100 million or more, paying them off through that annual tax stream of $13 million a year.

In June, Buckhorn told The Tribune the city might be willing to pay for the roads and infrastructure surrounding a future ballpark, but he didn't actually advocate putting tax money toward the stadium building itself. He also hedged a bit, saying he wasn't committed to using the money for ballpark infrastructure and that any number of uses are possible. Buckhorn couldn't be reached for comment this week for follow up.

Even if he was just talking hypothetically, other downtown groups noticed. Capin said arts and other groups have approached her concerned that the mayor was dedicating the money to a new stadium, when they have their own needs.

She scheduled next month's workshop to hear from the public and different community groups about how they feel the money should be spent. The message to the mayor is that it's the taxpayers' money, Capin said. The City Council ultimately oversees the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area and other similar community redevelopment areas.

“It's not designated, and that is the perception,” she said.

This week, The Tribune reached out to a few big downtown nonprofit groups, but the only one that expressed concern was the Straz Center. Chief Executive Officer Judy Lisi said she doesn't object to a baseball stadium in downtown Tampa, but her performing arts center has at least $10 million in capital expenditure needs, and she'd like a discussion on the money.

The Straz Center sparred with the mayor last year over a developer's plan to build a high-rise apartment tower next to the performing arts center. Buckhorn supported the tower, the Straz Center's board initially didn't.

“The city over time has invested millions of dollars into things that have become assets for this city, but there really isn't a system for sustainability,” Lisi said.

A spokesman for the Tampa Bay History Center didn't respond to a reporter's request for comment.

The head of the Tampa Museum of Art also was not available for comment Thursday.

Opposition from arts and nonprofit groups isn't the only obstacle facing Buckhorn's idea. Half of the $12 million per year in property taxes comes from the city of Tampa, but the other half comes from Hillsborough County. Until now, the county has allowed the city to use the full $12 million toward downtown Tampa uses, such as the Convention Center.

But County Commissioner Victor Crist, now wants to claim some of that money for Hillsborough County needs. If that happens, it could eat into the $100 million pot Buckhorn proposed for stadium infrastructure.

“If the TIF (tax-increment financing) gets earmarked for a single project that gobbles it all up, then all these other worthy entities could be put at risk,” Crist said.

Tampa's administrator of economic opportunity, Bob McDonaugh, downplayed the issue. No one has dedicated any money to a stadium or any other cause at this point, he said. The city and county still have to decide whether they'll continue setting aside downtown taxes for major projects through tax-increment financing.

And, there are scores of potential uses for the money, including giving some to nonprofits, spending it on Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park or steering some to a possible referendum on mass transit, he said.

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

Twitter: @msasso

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