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Time running out on key Rays funding component

Tampa Bay RaysWith talks between St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Rays over a new ballpark dragging, a key part of any funding plan — bed taxes — is under siege by other county groups.

The Pinellas County bed tax generates some $6 million a year to pay off Tropicana Field bonds. These bonds are scheduled to be paid off in September 2015, and the assumption by many is that these bed-tax proceeds would be rolled over to funding of a new Rays ballpark. Funding plans floating around assume that the county can sell new bonds off this bed-tax cash flow to the tune of $100 million to be paid back over 30 years.

But that’s awfully attractive pot of money to be sitting without any formal commitments, and other county nonprofits are making a pitch for a chunk of it. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, for example, is looking at a $160 million expansion, and county commissioners are clearing a way to make it happen. Organizers of other projects are already queuing up for a shot at the money. From the St. Petersburg Tribune:

“We have a formal request from the Clearwater aquarium project,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “It allows us to consider TDC funding for a potential aquarium project.”

Further hindering the Rays is that while they are tied up in negotiations, projects competing for a share of the taxes are moving ahead. State lawmakers awarded $2 million for the aquarium project from the state’s proposed $77 billion budget. The $1.2 million lawmakers allocated for a proposed Olympic BMX facility in Oldsmar, however, could mean the city will not apply for bed taxes if the item survives Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen.

“There are other projects that are lining up,” Welch said. “We can’t hit the pause button while the Rays issues are continually discussed.”

Now, the county is also looking at a penny hike in the bed tax, which could offset spending on the new projects. But with a lot more competition for bed-tax revenues, it’s pretty clear that some sort of Pinellas County/Tampa Bay Rays funding agreement needs to move forward sooner than later.

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