Sarasota officials consider tax for ball park

01/23/08 Mitch E. Perry
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A revised plan to keep Sarasota as the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds remains in question today.

On Tuesday Sarasota County officials opted to delay a vote until next week on whether to set aside $18-million in tourist tax dollars to help rebuild Ed Smith Stadium.

The total cost of rebuilding the park would be $41-million – that’s $13-million cheaper than a plan for a new park that was voted down by Sarasota City residents last fall.

A supermajority, or four County Commissioners, must approve the deal of bed tax money.

Sarasota Mayor Lou Ann Palmer spoke just hours after the Federal Reserve Board announced the biggest one-day cut ever in the benchmark rate. She used the economic unease to stress to the County Commission how important it was to keep the Reds in town.

But the Commission was hardly ready to rubber stamp Mayor Palmer’s request.

Commissioner Nora Patterson said she supported a new park for the Reds until she learned last summer that funding for beach maintenance had bled into ad valorem taxes.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton said making such momentous decisions were "no fun."

Because the county’s budget was also reduced because of state mandated rollbacks last year, Thaxton said allocating bed tax money for the redevelopment of Ed Smith Stadium was a luxury the county could not afford.

But not everybody felt the situation was so gloomy.

Commisioner Joe Barbetta said Sarasota could not afford to lose the Reds. Commissioner Paul Mercier said he could support the plan, but did not want the county to do "it on the cheap." He also said he wanted a commitment from the Reds that they would cease any potential negotions with other cities about possibly moving to another city in Florida or Arizona.

The Reds have agreed to provide $9-million in funding for the park. The state would kick in just under $8-million, and the Ccity of Saratota would pay $6.8-million.

City officials unanimously approved the plan on Tuesday. City Commissioner Kelly Kirschner said the issue for the city was what to do with the park that currently has an annual operating debt that could go over a million dollars, a debt that is costing city taxpayers. But he says after negotiating with the Reds over the last month and a half, the city now has a good deal to go forward to rebuild the park and keep Spring Training baseball alive in Sarasota.

A final decision needs to come before March, but County Commissioner could revisit their critical vote as early as next week.

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