Thursday, March 15, 2018

Good News (Except for Rays): Hillsborough Bed Tax Can Now Be Used for Even More Things

It's no secret Hillsborough County is going to raise its bed tax from 5 to 6 cents on the dollar, but County Commissioner Ken Hagan has tried to keep a secret all the other things the revenues could pay for, basically already carving out the revenues for a new Rays stadium.

"It can't be used for law enforcement or fire-rescue or libraries," Hagan has said in his repeated efforts to stress bed tax revenues are limited in their uses.

But that's terribly misleading, since those revenues CAN be used for tons of things besides a stadium: from marketing to aquariums to performance centers to arts to beaches to tourist-driving festivals.

In fact, since nobody else bothered to look, I found at least $550,000 a year earmarked in the county’s general revenue budget to help promote major Tampa Bay Sports Commission (TBSC) events, such as NCAA championships. While the TBSC doesn’t use all of the funds every year, those expenditures could be funded by the bed tax, which would allow the county to spend that half-million-or-so dollars on general revenue items such as schools, sewers, or roads. A $25,000 annual general revenue subsidy for the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival would also appear to be eligible for bed tax funding.
Annnnnnnd, the state legislature just allowed cities to spend that money on even more things!

The Tampa Bay Times reports on HB 7087, on its way to the governor's desk, which allows counties such as Hillsborough and Pinellas to now use bed tax money on "transportation and sewer projects that benefit tourists and the tourism industry."

So the next question is whether Hillsborough leaders will continue to just assume the Rays deserve the $6 million per year the county's bed tax will soon raise...or if they should examine if there are better possible uses for that money?

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

New Documents Reveal Rays Stadium & Hillsborough Financing Ideas

Newly-released public records from Hillsborough County’s secret discussions with the Tampa Bay Rays reveal how the county is going about trying to raise public funds for construction on what could require more than $300 million in taxpayer funds.

10Investigates obtained the documents from the county’s two outside legal firms on the dealings, Foley & Lardner LLP and O’Melveny & Myers LLP, who previously responded to the same public records request with zero documents. But after further questions from 10Investigates, the county’s legal department provided 51 pages of documents from behind-the-scenes stadium discussions.

Click here to read excerpted documents

While county leaders have been mum on how they expect to pay for a new Rays stadium, one of the newly-obtained documents shows an agenda item from a previously-undisclosed February 2017 meeting: “general discussion of sources – trying not to focus on amounts, but sources.”

Several Hillsborough County commissioners publicly expressed concern throughout 2017 at the lack of transparency from fellow commissioner Ken Hagan regarding public financing sources and amounts.

As first reported by 10Investgates, Hillsborough County is now eligible to increase its bed tax from 5% to 6%, and Hagan is reportedly leading the charge to make the change as soon as possible to create new revenues to help fund a Rays stadium.

The county also used that Feb. 2017 meeting to discuss a Citigroup debt capacity report, which analyzed the different ways the county could come up with public money to help fund stadium construction.

The report examined how the county could raise $15 million per year by raising rental car taxes by $2 per day. However, the airport recently raised that fee to help fund its own construction, and at $5.95 per day, it’s the highest rate in the state.

With rideshare popularity surpassing rental cars, the airport also had to create new revenue from local passengers, creating a new $3-per-pickup rideshare fee, which will escalate to $5-per-pickup in 2019 to help raise additional funds.

The Citigroup stadium bond capacity report also considered extended the Community Investment Tax past 2026, when Raymond James Stadium will be paid off. The sales tax could generate $10 million per year for a new Rays stadium, but the extension would be a tough political sell and the county may need the funds to appease the Buccaneers when their lease expires the same year as the Rays’.

A new Rays stadium could cost upwards of $600 million, and Rays owner Stu Sternberg’s initial offer in public negotiations has only been $150 million. That could leave taxpayers on the hook for more than $450 million, although most sports business observers expect Sternberg to ultimately offer more.

Ballpark Reimagined
10Investigates also obtained what appeared to be a November 2017 update to the Rays’ “Ballpark Reimagined” research, compiling fan and expert recommendations for a new ballpark. Many of the recommendations echo public statements Rays’ executives have made in recent months about stadium intimacy, the need for a stadium roof, and maintaining “local authenticity.”

The Rays’ report also detailed development ideas, such as “knitting local businesses into the ballpark,” and providing “a defined gateway into the district from adjacent activity centers," such as Ybor City and Channelside.

Several times, the report mentions making the ballpark a “community asset,” which could help satisfy both stadium subsidy critics who complain about ballparks sitting empty 200+ nights a year, as well as subsidy advocates who may be looking for opportunities to use various government funds to help fund stadium construction.

“Regional connectivity” (highways & road improvements) and “site accessibility” are also prominently mentioned in the Ballpark Reimagined report.

Other documents turned over to 10Investigates from the county’s outside counsel, include maps and real estate information from various Tampa neighborhoods that helped elected and business leaders assemble parcels of land together for what ultimately became the proposed Ybor City stadium site.

Through late January, O'Melveny and Foley had billed Hillsborough County nearly $400,000 in legal bills. Firm attorneys and county leaders have quietly met regularly for years about their campaign to lure the Rays from St. Petersburg.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Rays to Finally Cash in on TV Ratings

For all their attendance struggles, the Rays have had great TV ratings over the years.  And finally, it appears they'll cash in on that long-anticipated value, reportedly inking a 15-year TV deal with Fox Sports worth an average $82 million per year, starting in 2019, according to Sports Business Daily.

This deal was not unexpected:

In 2010, I wrote how the Rays' budget problems would be remedied by their impending windfall of TV bucks.

In 2012, I wrote how MLB TV revenues were on-pace to soon dwarf ticket revenues.

In 2015, I wrote how the Rays quietly extended their TV deal, delaying their mega-windfall by what we now know is a couple years.

In 2016, I wrote how the Rays (and every other team) hauled in some $50 million each from selling off a piece of equity in MLB Advanced Media.

So yes, the Rays have a ton of new revenue about to pour in...but its likely not "new" revenue that the team is all of a sudden going to commit to payroll or a new stadium;  they are revenues the team was already budgeting.

That deal, according to Sports Business Daily, by the way, will reportedly increase the Rays' TV deal from $35 million in 2018 to $50 million in 2019, climbing all the way through 2033.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Hillsborough Co, Lightning Agree to Extension and Funding Plan Through 2037

The Tampa Bay Lightning are staying put longer at Amalie Arena.

Not that team owner Jeff Vinik had threatened to relocate, but on Wednesday, Hillsborough County Commissioners approved a $61 million subsidy from county bed tax collections to improve Amalie Arena, home of the Lightning. In exchange, the Lightning will committ more of their own funds to improving the venue, as well as agreeing to what equates to a 10-year extension in Tampa, locking down the team’s future through at least 2037.

Some of the renovations will address structural and maintance items in the 20-year-old arena, such as boilers, chillers, ice plant, escalators, and elevators. Under the current contract, the county owns Amalie Arena, but the Lightning are responsible for the cost of maintaining it through 2027.

“We just appreciate the county for understanding the arena’s critical structures and its end of life needs,” Bill Wickett, Lightning Executive Vice President of Communications, told me, adding the team will have chipped in nearly half of the $200 million in arena upgrades between 2010, when Vinik bought the team, and 2030.

“(This will) keep our building modern and viable for the long-term, presetving it in its current location at the center of the Water Street development district,” Wickett said.

The approved amendment would still allow the Lightning to leave Tampa prior to 2037, but would increase the multi-million-dollar penalties for doing so.

“We are fortunate to have a true community partner in Jeff Vinik,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who has championed sports investment in the county.

Not every commissioner supported the motion; conservative commissioner Stacy White was the lone “nay” vote, voicing his objection to spending tax dollars on a pro sports team worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The deal will be finalized with an agreement between the Lightning and the Tampa Sports Authority to extend a pair of five-year options running through 2032 and 2037, respectively.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ken Hagan: How Did We Get Here?

As reporters, we never want to be part of the story.  But let's face it: Ken Hagan's feud with me reached mainstream comedic proportions last Friday, when he stood in front of two dozen cameras and said he wouldn't answer my question regarding what kind of financing county officials were discussing behind-closed-doors.

Then, in a well-choreographed exit at the conclusion of the press conference, Hagan scurried to the back door and had a consultant restrain me while he sprinted to a county car (with chauffeur) awaiting outside.

Many of you have asked me in recent days how we got here.  Well, it all started early on in the stadium saga.

Since Hagan self-appointed himself lead negotiator for Hillsborough County on the Rays-to-Tampa effort in 2010, I've been asking watchdog questions about how the cash-strapped county will pay for it. 

If you don't think those are important questions, talk to taxpayers in Miami.  Or in Cincinnati.  Or in Cobb County.  After all, Hillsborough County already is failing to fund necessary roadwork and won't spend money on much-needed transit.

Which is why, several years ago, I identified how Hagan was shifting from the conservative tax hawk that got him elected in 2010.  He started talking more about offering the Rays incentives to dump their partners in St. Pete and come across the bay.

Hagan pushed back, claiming he never said "no public dollars" for a stadium...except the proof several different places.  Then he did it again in 2013.

There were other key moments in our professional relationship:

2015 - Connections to political consultant & public records problems: I aired the product of a year-long investigation into how a closely-tied political consultant and lobbyist, Beth Leytham, appeared to use her relationship with Hagan and other politicians to exert influence on big government deals behind-the-scenes.  Hagan didn't like the story, and also failed to comply with public records requests, ultimately getting rid of his cell phone before sheriff's deputies could investigate what happened to his text messages.

2016 - Secret stadium negotiations: I took to Facebook to call out Hagan and others for their broken promises on transparency. 

2017 - Hillsborough Man of Mystery: It was a chance to catch up with the commissioner about all the issues he wouldn't return my calls on: secret stadium funding, public record problems, free tickets he didn't disclose, and handouts for Hollywood productions.

2017 - The pop-up video: We tried to get real answers to real questions...but instead, the commissioner resorted to a well-rehearsed line about "irresponsible and misleading reporting"...16 times.  So naturally, we posted the entire video.

2018 - Ybor City announcement: After Hagan admitted leaking news of the Ybor deal to a friendly news outlet back in October so I didn't get it first, I've broadcast a series of Hagan-related investigations based on public records, including all the campaign money he's received from the individuals who stand to gain from the secret stadium dealings.

I still can't figure out who is giving Hagan his advice, but I'd contend its not very good advice.  It's not just my stories, but his fellow commissioners are distrustful and his "partner" in this dance, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, called him "bush league" and a "minor league politician."

Anyway, if you really want more, here's a few other links you can kill your work day with:

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

What the Hell Just Happened? Rays' Ybor Press Conference News Pt. 2

Even though Friday's Rays-to-Ybor pep rally press conference produced few surprises, there was still too much to unpack in one blogpost.  So, after "What the Hell Just Happened - Pt. 1," here are a few other nuggets worth recapping this weekend :

Sternberg on opening team's books
In the wake of the Miami Marlins boondoggle, there's good reason to want team owners to come clean, be transparent, and open their books to show actual need for public subsidies.  So I asked Stu Sternberg Friday if he would be open to the idea, as teams such as the Cardinals have done in the past.  He politely said, "no thank you":

His reasoning was that the team's books had been "opened" in 2008-09, via leak.  Of course, MLB has grown by the billions since then, especially with the growth of its monstrous digital empire.  And revenue sharing has increased as well.  But it's easy to pretend like those revenues don't exist when you've got a shiny new vision of a ballpark to promote!

Sternberg on new stadium's effects on payroll
I mean, that's why the Rays want a new stadium anyway, right?

Hagan's response to my questions
Then, there's Ken Hagan, who surprised (most of) the room full of journalists Friday with this response to the question of what kind of tax revenues are being discussed behind-closed-doors:

But that isn't an acceptable answer when the commissioner still hasn't talked about what kind of public dollars he's eyeing in his now eight-year-old stadium campaign.  Transparency is key when hundreds of millions of tax dollars are on the table.

So, as is typical in a press conference, we went to Hagan afterward for follow-up questions.  He raced out the back door, and had a consultant restrain me from leaving the building:

I don't see it as the "feud" that Mitch Perry described it as in this weekend story, but at the end of an interview with 620 WDAE-AM Friday, Hagan took an unprovoked shot at the "arrows and haters, one (of whom) was at the press conference today, as a matter of fact."

The hosts of the show, longtime radioman Ron Diaz and former sports journalist JP Peterson, had just finished applauding Hagan, specifically, for disrupting St. Pete's contract with the Rays, when they confirmed that I was the "hater" he was referring to.  Hagan then added it was "TMZ-like misleading and irresponsible reporting."   Still waiting to hear what exactly he found so misleading and irresponsible.

Hagan on Buckhorn's "bush league" comments
In that same WDAE interview, Hagan laughed off Mayor Buckhorn's Thursday comments, where he referred to Hagan as a "minor-league politician" and "bush-league" for leaking the Ybor City news (again) without consulting his long-time partners in the effort.

But the relationship didn't seem warm Friday.  Hagan also said there hadn't yet been "any real discussions on the financing elements," seemingly a contradiction with Buckhorn's Friday comments that "7 or 8" different financing mechanisms are being eyed.  Hagan's comments, after eight years of courting the team, seem either disingenuous or financially reckless.

Finally, Hagan said in the interview that "I’ve said for 8 years repeatedly that we’re not going to raise taxes."  He actually campaigned 7.5 years ago on the promise of "no public dollars" at all for the stadium, but his views have shifted quite a bit since 2010

He seems to be pushing a stadium subsidy package that would cost more public dollars than Raymond James Stadium:

Buckhorn on Rays' "extortions"
Three years ago, Mayor Buckhorn said the Rays will "use every extract - some would say extort - the most money from the public."  I asked him if he still believed that:

Buckhorn has been more forthcoming than Hagan in talking financials...probably because he started pulling back from his once-cheerleader-in-chief role back in 2013.  He said Friday fees and taxes that hit tourists and ticket-holders will be prioritized over those that affect residents.  But the Rays will not be a fan of using things like naming rights and ticket taxes for construction.

That $800 million stadium figure and transparency
I also asked Sternberg if he felt he was living up to the franchise's promise to be transparent through the stadium process.  He said he did.

But, it also feels he has been throwing around $800 million (along with his $150 million suggested team contribution) as nothing more than sticker shock numbers to set an opening bar for public subsidy expectations.  But he knows a stadium isn't happening if the cost doesn't come down and his contributions don't come up.

So let's reset this conversation at $600-650 million, since the team doesn't need a retractable roof. The Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin just reported the Marlins had their roof open for only six games last year, and 50 games in their six years at Marlins Park.

With roof technology advancing (see Falcons and Vikings' stadiums), the Rays will be looking at a fixed, translucent roof to save on the mechanics of expensive retractable technology.

Field of Schemes on the big picture
Neil deMause writes, "This is right out of the standard stadium playbook: Make a big deal of announcing a site, get everyone debating whether it’s the right site and what it would mean for fans...and hope no one notices that you still have at minimum a $400 million funding gap."
In any case, feel free to debate the pros and cons of the Ybor City site, but try not to get distracted from the real issue here: Stuart Sternberg wants a new stadium, and wants somebody to pay for it who isn’t him. Because forgetting about that while staring at a shiny stadium site is exactly what he wants you to do.
It may be working. Every headline this week has been, "who will pay for it," rather than "should we pay for it?"

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Friday, February 9, 2018

What the Hell Just Happened? Rays' Ybor Press Conference News Pt. 1

So the Rays' Friday "news" that they want to play in Ybor City was actually very little news, and much more dog-and-pony show, aimed at building support from the business well as an appetite for public spending from taxpayers.

But if you were hoping for more details on what a stadium would look like, when it might get done, or how the heck anyone would pay for it, you're out of luck. 

The elected and community leaders running the press conference didn't really address financing, and when I asked the point man for the negotiations, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, he sprinted out the back door.

Video posted to Twitter, or check out my 5pm report on WTSP here:

Elsewhere in town, the immediate coverage romanticized how great a new Ybor stadium could be, and the Times' editorial board heralded the day as a "significant achievement."   Business leaders Ron Christaldi and Chuck Sykes penned an op-ed celebrating the "regional approach", even though I'm pretty sure Hillsborough and Pinellas never worked a day together on trying to keep the Rays. 

But then there was Times columnist John Romano, handicapping the chances of an Ybor stadium happening at just 36%.  His reasoning: money.

The only guy who seemed willing to talk about financing was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who said "7 or 8" different funding streams may be necessary to help get the public financing done on a new stadium.  And since he said MLB teams try to "extort" cities, if the Rays get too greedy, Tampa will have to just "let them walk."  I didn't get the feeling he and Hagan weren't yet BFFs again.

By the way, here's my link for the 14 different ways Hillsborough Co. could lean on tax dollars to fund a new Rays stadium.

Finally for tonight, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman is right - if the Rays don't get what they want in Tampa, there's a good chance they come right back to St. Pete, where hundreds of millions in public financing is already waiting for them.

I'll post more about what Stu Sternberg & others said.....over the weekend.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Buckhorn Calls Hagan "Bush League" After Commissioner Goes Lone Wolf

So, once again, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan goes all lone wolf, leaking news of a Friday Ybor City stadium press conference to a local sports reporter he knew wouldn't ask tough questions about secret negotiations, troubling stadium situations in nearby cities, or how many tax dollars will be asked on this project.

That hasn't gone over well, with several county commissioners venting to me this week about Hagan's lack of transparency, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn UNLOADING on Hagan for keeping him out of the loop for a second time in three months, calling the commissioner "bush league" and a "minor league politician."

I'm not expecting much real "news" from tomorrow's press conference, since we already knew the Rays were negotiating financials with Hillsborough and they'd love to move across the bay if someone will build them a stadium.

But here are the tweets that stand out from a busy evening:

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hagan Cashes in on Stadium Negotiations

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, who assumed the unofficial role of chief Rays stadium negotiator for the county, is trying to strike a deal that would turn hundreds of millions of public and private dollars into a financial win for all parties involved.

But his campaign account is already seeing a windfall, as numerous executives and developers involved in the high-stakes negotiations have cut checks to Hagan in recent months, campaign finance records show.

As Hillsborough County was racking up huge bills in 2017 on outside legal counsel through firm Foley & Lardner - $24,000 per month during the final third of the year – messages obtained by WTSP show Kami Corbett, an attorney and lobbyist for the firm, was coordinating a Hagan meeting with the firm’s partner, Bob DuPuy.

Less than a month after those April communications and the planned meeting, records show DuPuy, who was also the former COO for Major League Baseball, then cut a maximum-allowable $1,000 campaign donation to Hagan. DuPuy also sent Hagan a $1,000 check in 2013, just before Hillsborough County hired his firm.

Hagan also received a series of seven $1,000 campaign donations from companies and family members tied by Darryl Shaw this past summer; Shaw is an Ybor City developer, who, according to text messages obtained by WTSP through public records requests, was discussing land prices during those same summer months with Hagan and the county’s outside counsel.

This past June, Rays owner Stu Sternberg also sent Hagan a $1,000 check. And according to Hagan’s ethics disclosures, the Rays gifted the commissioner a “suite with food provided” at an Atlanta Braves game in August.

Representatives from Foley & Lardner did not return requests for comment Tuesday. When Shaw was contacted about his donations in August, he declined comment.

Commissioner Hagan again failed to respond to a request for comment this week; he said he would no longer talk to me in October “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated that phrase 16 times.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Surprising Bills - and Texts - From Hillsborough’s Rays Stadium Attorneys

Hillsborough County has now spent nearly $400,000 on outside legal counsel in its quest to lure the Rays over from St. Petersburg, and public records indicate the two firms it now employs appear to be not only advising the county, but also negotiating on its behalf -- and possibly withholding records related to the discussions from public view.

Billing records show the county is now spending an average of $24,000 a month on stadium-related legal consulting to Foley & Lardner LLP, which has billed the county more than $300,000 in the last three years.

Law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP, which now employs former Foley attorney Irwin Raij also started collecting county checks in September for Raij’s time, billing Hillsborough County $58,524 over the final four months of 2017.  It is not clear how many hours a week Raij, a respected sports business attorney, is spending on the project.

I repeatedly requested public records related to stadium discussions from County Commissioner Ken Hagan, and after numerous responses indicating none existed, a county attorney produced a series of text messages and emails between Hagan and Raij from the commissioner’s personal phone and email accounts.

Those messages reveal a pattern of private meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations on a project that could include hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies.   One text, sent from Raij to Hagan on Nov. 14, references a “marked up Rays document,” which has not been turned over.

Other texts between Raij and Hagan coordinate negotiations with local land owners, as well as the county’s response to media questions about the prospective new Tampa stadium – a surprise to several Hillsborough County commissioners I spoke to.

“My concern right now is the lack of transparency,” said Commissioner Victor Crist.  “I’d love to see the Rays playing in Hillsborough County and I think the (proposed) site in Ybor City is a great location with lots of opportunities for expanded development.  But the board needs to be kept in the loop.”

Florida’s public records laws require most records Hagan creates to be turned over when requested by any member of the public, including documents Hagan may create and later give to an attorney.

But few records have been produced in response to my requests, even as multiple county staffers have confirmed the existence of certain documents that Hagan's office never turned over. 

Hagan has a long history of refusing to turn over public records.

“The cost (of legal fees) is shocking because its not something that we’ve discussed at the board,” Crist continued. “I don’t think we anticipated it would take this long (or) cost this much.  I think we’re going to have to get some answers and take a closer look at where do we draw the line...a good briefing is long overdue.”

Foley & Lardner has been on legal retainer with the county since 2014 at the cost of $4,500 per month, plus an additional $395 per hour in attorney fees and expenses related to travel. 

The $400,000 in outside legal bills over the course of three years are in addition to the countless hours county staffers have spent on developing a new stadium plan for the Rays.  But even those resources pale in comparison to the subsidies the Rays have suggested might be necessary to get a stadium deal done in the cash-strapped county.

It won't be cheap

Rays’ owner Stu Sternberg’s opening offer was a suggested $150 million contribution on a stadium that he said could cost $800 million.  Experts tell me a fixed-roof stadium would be more practical and could be built in the $500-to-$600 million range, but would likely still require hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from either private developers or taxpayers.

That could put the public contributions for a new Rays stadium at more than double the public cost of Raymond James Stadium, even when inflation is considered.

“I would never put the taxpayer on the hook for that entire difference…that doesn’t work at all,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp.  “What’s going to have to be seen is…to the extent (the Rays and county) can privately leverage (financing).”

I previously identified 14 different potential ways a new stadium could lean on public funds to subsidize construction.  Hagan has indicated the county is eyeing bed taxes, an “entertainment district” tax on retail sales made in the immediate area, and local community redevelopment area (CRA) property taxes for potential stadium funding.

Several commissioners have publicly vented in recent years that they are not getting sufficient communication from the county administrator and county attorney regarding the ongoing negotiations with the team and presumed discussions regarding hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

“I have only been briefed one time,” Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman said.  “Bringing in big developers will make or break (a deal)…but it’s a non-starter for me if it involves taxes.”

Negotiations over public dollars are private

Secrecy has been an ongoing theme of the stadium talks, even after the secretive “land acquisition” stage of the process had been completed.  In late January, Hagan attended a private dinner at Bern’s Steakhouse with County Administrator Mike Merrill, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Rays owner Stu Sternberg, and prominent business leaders to discuss a Tampa stadium.

Details of the meeting did not appear on the calendars of any of the public officials.  Hagan’s text messages also reveal that other stadium-related meetings between Hagan and Raij, Tampa businessmen, and the Rays never appeared on the commissioner’s public calendar either.

A Hagan aide told me, “The commissioner doesn’t put everything on his calendar.”

The firm also coordinated a trip for Hagan and County CFO Bonnie Wise to attend a trip to Atlanta to see the Braves’ new stadium last year, where the two attended a game as guests of the Atlanta Braves.  Hagan disclosed the gift on his third quarter ethics filing.

Hagan’s recently-obtained texts also confirm my August report revealing the commissioner was exploring relocating – and rebuilding – the sheriff’s office headquarters in an effort to trade county land in Ybor City for a new stadium site.

A series of texts between Hagan and Raij in October also reference misdirecting the press in an effort to secure land in Ybor City.  Following a number of frustrating months negotiating with land owners, Hagan told reporters in October the county was moving on from the Ybor site and focused on the city’s West Shore district.  But Hagan and Raij joked there was no West Shore site at the time.

Following several days of speculation by sportstalk hosts and bloggers, the county was then able to secure the needed land in Ybor City.

Commissioner Hagan again failed to respond to a request for comment; he said he would no longer talk to me in October “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated that phrase 16 times.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

The Buckhorn and Hagan Almost-Secret Meeting with the Rays

The meeting was described as just “Baskette dinner” on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s calendar. It listed as just “Bern’s” on the calendar of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

And County Administrator Mike Merrill didn’t put it on his calendar at all.

But the high-powered dinner Jan. 23 at Tampa’s famed Bern’s Steakhouse was actually a rendezvous of powerful government leaders, local attorneys and Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, who is seeking public money for a new stadium, presumably near Tampa’s Ybor City and Channelside districts.

Buckhorn declined comment on the story, but the mayor's spokesperson told me the meeting was listed on his calendar as “Baskette dinner” simply because it was coordinated by Patrick Baskette, an experienced lobbyist who works for Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.

The firm’s partner, Ron Christaldi, a former chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, was also at the dinner. Christaldi has played the pivotal role in incorporating a nonprofit entity to assemble land and facilitate negotiations between the Rays and local governments out of the public eye.

Both Baskette and Christaldi are registered lobbyists; neither returned requests for comment.

Christaldi’s proximity to lucrative negotiations about land deals and tax dollars have drawn criticism around Tampa Bay; Baskette’s public involvement in the negotiations is a new development.

Several Hillsborough County commissioners told me they knew there had been a meeting with the Rays, but were surprised to learn of some of the details, including the location and individuals in attendance.

Two said they believed the meeting should have been better-detailed on officials’ public calendars.

Merrill said the dinner was never added to his calendar because the date was uncertain and he didn’t get a call about it until that day.

Under Florida law, officials’ and employees’ public calendars are considered public records, and available for inspection to any member of the public. But Hagan and Buckhorn – as well as some of the county’s top executives - have gone to great lengths in recent years to keep stadium-related discussions away from public records, even as hundreds of millions of tax dollars are discussed in conversation.

A Hagan aide said Thursday, “The commissioner doesn’t put everything on his calendar.”

Previously, Buckhorn told me the discussion items needed to be kept secret to prevent the price of speculative stadium property from soaring. Hagan told his fellow commissioners the same thing when they insisted on getting more frequent updates.

But securing land several months ago, at a fixed, agreed-upon price, did little to change the secretive nature of the talks. Hagan’s fellow commissioners reported just getting their first-ever briefings on the years-old discussions with the team this week.

Commissioners told me there remains little appetite to make up the nine-figure funding gap the Rays have suggested may be needed to get a stadium built.  And several said no new stadium will get built in Tampa without enormous private sector contributions.

Major national developers are expected to visit Tampa this month to explore the possibilities of creating a new entertainment district sandwiched between Ybor and downtown.

Sources tell me the funding discussions seem to be centering around two financing mechanisms: Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs), which earmark a portion of county property taxes for projects in that same area; and a new entertainment district tax, which would be assessed on businesses around the ballpark.

However, those proposed funding mechanisms present challenges. Politically, both mechanisms involve tax dollars, which some commissioners have sworn off. And state Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran has challenged Tampa's authority to create special taxing districts.

There are also questions regarding the incredible amount of development that would be necessary to provide enough new tax revenue to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium construction.

The two funding sources are among the 14 different tax revenues I previously identified as possible ways to publicly finance a new Tampa stadium.

The Rays are expected to announce in upcoming weeks that the Tampa location is their “preferred” new home, but funding challenges could keep St. Petersburg’s preferred location for a new stadium, the Tropicana Field site, on the table.

Pinellas County’s available city and county funding for a new stadium could also one day bring a site near the bay bridges, such as Derby Lane, back into the mix should Hillsborough fail to find financing suitable to the team.

Merrill said Christaldi picked up the check following the meeting at Bern’s, but Merrill reimbursed him for his dinner.

Commissioner Hagan again failed to respond to a request for comment; he said he would no longer talk to me in October “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated that phrase 16 times.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

By One Metric, Bucs Most Popular Team in Tampa Bay; Pinellas Supporting Rays Better Than Hillsborough

Since the Rays won't release numbers on where their ticket holders are coming from (except when its convenient for them), I took a look at another metric: where fans were buying specialty license plates.

And while the Bucs and Bolts enjoy considerably more popularity in Hillsborough County than anywhere else in the state, there are more Tampa Bay Rays specialty tags in Pinellas than Hillsborough, despite the coastal county's smaller population (about 30% smaller).

Now this may not come as a surprise to many, but the whole "Pinellas hasn't supported that team" argument really is moot - if Pinellas isn't "properly" supporting the Rays, neither is Hillsborough.

Other fun Florida license plate facts (see the full stats on my story):

Most popular pro teams in Florida:
Most popular colleges in Florida:
Where Tampa Bay Rays plates are most popular:
Where Tampa Bay Buccaneers plates are most popular:
Where Tampa Bay Lightning plates are most popular:

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