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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Henderson: Councilwoman is right about Rays transparency

When the question is how to spend about $100 million in taxpayer dough, the last thing this or any other town needs is even the appearance of an inside deal.

Fair or not — and for the record, I don’t think it is fair — the perception is that the fix is in for a new Rays baseball stadium in downtown Tampa. A key part of that alleged fix includes money generated from a special taxing district.

It’s about $13 million annually, or about $100 million overall, and is currently used to pay bonds for the Tampa Convention Center. Those bonds expire in 2016, but the tax will continue to be collected and Mayor Bob Buckhorn has mused that it would make a dandy dent in the cost to build the Rays a new home.

It would, assuming they can negotiate their way out of St. Petersburg.

But as Tampa City Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin said, there has to be a thorough public airing before anyone gets carried away. It’s public money and there is a lot of need.

She has scheduled a workshop on Feb. 13 to talk about this.

The Straz Center could use $10 million. Projects in the county need funding. That’s probably just the start. When the time comes, there will be a lot of hands reaching into that public pot.

Given that, even the most ardent stadium supporter should agree wholeheartedly with Capin’s demand for transparency. You may believe a new stadium should be built downtown as quickly as possible, but this has to be done correctly.

A lot of us remember when the Buccaneers demanded a new home to replace old Tampa Stadium. City and county leaders skirted the ends of the sunshine law and met clandestinely with Bucs owners to work on a deal.

The result was a lease so lopsided in favor of the Bucs it infuriated even those who supported keeping the team here. Frankly, I think Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer just ran out of things to ask for.

Eventually, voters did approve the Community Investment Tax to pay for Raymond James Stadium and a whole bunch of other projects, but it seems like many held their nose while doing so. That vote was more than 17 years ago, but a bitter residue remains today.

Now, figure a Rays stadium will cost three or four times the $168.5 million base price for Ray-Jay. Eyeballs are going to be laser-locked on any arrangement to commit public funds to something like that.

Case in point: On Thursday, the Rays celebrated the signing of free-agent pitcher Grant Balfour in a news conference at the Tampa Museum of Art. That was an odd setting for a baseball announcement, perhaps, but the Rays had already booked it for a sponsor function.

The fun began when the Rays said they would be announcing major, baseball-related news. People read over the “baseball-related” part and assumed it had to be a development on the stadium.

Radio folk, in particular, seemed miffed to find the Rays had “only” signed an all-star closer who had 38 saves a year ago, a move that could make them a championship contender.

Anyway, it’s one thing to talk about what a stadium could do for downtown, but it’s another to pay for it. It’s tempting to start grabbing at that big pot of cash while dreaming of the Rays and the World Series, but take a deep breath. There will be no inside deals.

Paying for a new stadium really is major baseball-related news, and if it happens at all, then it better be in full sunshine.

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