Tampa City Council begins conversation on what do with downtown money in 2015

Posted by Mitch Perry on Thu, Feb 13, 2014 at 3:12 PM

Yolie Capin
  • Yolie Capin
Millions of dollars of property taxes currently generated in the downtown area to pay off the remaining debt for Tampa Convention Center will become available for other projects late next year. Today, the Tampa City Council held their first public discussion on where to redirect those funds beginning in November of 2015. Notably, no one spoke about those new dollars being used to help pay for a baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, which is what has generated the biggest media interest over the past year.

But overshadowing that discussion somewhat was what power the City Council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), actually possesses when it comes to determining where to direct those funds.

Council members were under the impression that they had full autonomy to decide what do with those dollars, but were informed by a city attorney today that there are agreements regarding this particular CRA that have to be negotiated with Hillsborough County as well as the mayor's office before they can go forward, prompting Councilwoman Yolie Capin to contemplate what actual role the Council has in the issue.

A CRA or TIF (tax increment financing) is a special taxing district created by a local government. Property tax revenues are reinvested from the district into community redevelopment projects.

Capin pushed back on comments she said she had received from members of Bob Buckhorn's administration calling the discussion a bit premature, since the bonds to pay off the Tampa Convention Center (which currently generate approximately $13 million annually) don't end until the fall of 2015.

"You know what’s premature?" she asked. "Talking about money for this stadium."

In fact, a stadium built for the Rays anywhere outside of St. Petersburg or Pinellas County is purely fantasy at this point, as that franchise still has over a decade left on their lease agreement to play at Tropicana Field. But unless you just dropped down from Mars recently, you know that speculation has been rampant for years that the Rays might want to work out a deal to play in Tampa, though it remains just that—speculation.

However, last August Mayor Buckhorn and then-Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan hosted a news conference that included discussion of CRA funding from downtown becoming a source of money to build a new ballpark. The roughly $13 million that will become available could be used to leverage up to $100 million in bonds.

Council Chairman Charlie Miranda was perhaps the most outspoken local politician against the lopsided deal that resulted in the public funding of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raymond James Stadium, which Hillsborough County taxpayers approved back in1996. His stance has never changed when it comes to such financing.

"They want a stadium? I don’t know who wants a stadium. I think it's created by Mr. or Mrs. Unknown," he said Thursday, apparently ignoring the fact that the mayor of Tampa has openly speculated that the CRA money could be a source of funding for the construction of such a facility—a projected estimated to cost as much as $600 million.

But such talk has also been fueled by the media, desperate to find a new way to tell a story that has gone on for years with little movement. The narrative is this: The Rays want out of St. Petersburg, but currently have no alternatives. Rays management does want to negotiate with officials in Hillsborough County, but discussions with former St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster on that subject floundered last year. New Mayor Rick Kriseman says he is now about to engage in another round of discussions about the Rays sitting down with Hillsborough officials.

Meanwhile, a handful of citizens came before the Council on Thursday to give their opinions about where that available funding should go next year. All of those who spoke represented organizations (the Tampa Theatre, the Straz Center, the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Museum of Art, and Lowry Park Zoo) that currently receive funding annually from the city. But as City Councilman Harry Cohen noted, that's for their annual budgets, as opposed to more intense capital projects that would require much more funding.

Former City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena spoke up about directing some of the funds to the Tampa Theatre. She said "we have old wiring, an old roof, an old facility. It’s beautiful, but it is old. As we attempt to raise money to keep the building up, we need you to work in partnership with us."

Tom Hall with the Florida Aquarium Foundation (which receives funding from a different CRA) argued that the funds should be used to build a series of parks in downtown Tampa, saying it would encourage high-quality future development in the city since there currently many parks where kids can play sports.

"If we don’t do it now, we probably won’t be able to do it in ten years," he warned.

The discussion ended with the Council agreeing to two future meetings on the topic. The first, scheduled for April 10, will go over the roles and responsibilities regarding the CRA. A meeting scheduled for May 8 will cover the priorities for assessing what projects might be eligible for funding when the TIF money becomes available in November of 2015.

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