CLEARWATER, Florida - With the Rays itching for a new place to play and the debt on Tropicana Field expiring after 2015, Pinellas Co. Commissioner Norm Roche has an idea of what to do with the available bed tax money in 2016: put it toward a different kind of park.
Roche is currently looking into the legality of spending heavily-restricted tourist tax dollars on parks like Fort DeSoto. The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has suggested a $5-per-vehicle fee at the park to help deal with another year of budget shortfalls.
"Our taxpayers already paid to buy, paid to build, paid to maintain (Fort DeSoto)," Roche said. "Now we want to say, 'Pay to get in?' I have a fundamental problem with that as a longtime resident who grew up here."
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But many in Pinellas County would like to see the available funds - $5 to $10 million a year - go toward a new Rays stadium. The franchise has been in a stalemate with the City of St. Pete over it's use agreement at Tropicana Field, which runs until 2027.
"I'm not willing to just collect money and wait for someone to come by and say, 'Hey, can I have it?' when we have needs out there that need to be met," Roche said. "So if the Rays want to sit down and talk about any potentials, I'm open. But at this point, we don't have a stadium problem."
Roche was one of the dissenting votes last year when the board voted, 5-2, to continue the 5-cent tourist tax after the Tropicana Field bonds were paid off.
Ninety-eight percent of the county's tourist tax is paid by visitors. It generates between $20 and $25 million for marketing, beach renourishment, and stadium payments each year.
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