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The commission considers approving stadium improvements at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in its chambers, 2120 Main St., Fort Myers.

Lee County Commission chambers


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Commissioners on Tuesday could push through a deal that puts Lee County in $91 million of debt to pay for stadium improvements proposed by the Minnesota Twins, according to recently released documents.

Under a finance plan the baseball team put together with approval of county officials, taxpayers could be left to pick up millions in baseball related expenses that were previously paid with tourist tax dollars, according to the Project Financing Plan, county budget documents and county officials.

Commissioners will vote on the Twins’ deal just two weeks before new commissioners are sworn in Nov. 20 — and eight years before the team’s contract to play at Hammond Stadium expires in 2020.

“There’s no question in my mind that they’re going to make this contract come to fruition before November 20,” Republican commission candidate Larry Kiker said. “I think there’s more than just a mild hesitation that a new commission might look at this a whole lot different than the current one.”

Commissioner Ray Judah refused to comment. Commissioners John Manning and Tammy Hall did not return calls.

Assistant County Manager Doug Meurer said the Twins initially wanted more money for stadium improvements and expansions. The demands were made on the heels of the commission’s decision to take on more than $141 million in debt to build a new stadium for the Red Sox in 2010.

The Twins, he said, lowered the amount they wanted after evaluating how much money the county could borrow with its tourist tax fund. County officials previously dedicated 20 percent of the taxes collected on hotel rooms and vacation rentals for baseball.

Borrowing

Using county budget numbers, the team’s financial advisers show how officials can borrow $41.9 million and pay an additional $6.5 million to cover cost of stadium improvements.

The debt leaves the county without money for improvements that could bring a team to City of Palms Park — a downtown Fort Myers stadium left vacant when the Red Sox moved to their new home after the 2011 season.

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It also calls for the county to pay little principal in the early years, because the fund can’t afford an evenly distributed repayment plan, Assistant County Manager Pete Winton said.

The county will pay about $7 million more than a borrower who pays equal installments over a 30 year term.

Additionally, the cost of salaries for three county employees who work on the county’s baseball stadiums will be shifted from tourist taxes to the parks and recreation budget at a cost of $140,000 a year — $4.2 million over the 30 year life of the loan, according to county budget documents.

Earlier this year, county officials proposed closing parks early to cut down on a $30 million budget shortfall, according to documents. The plan was never executed and officials continue to spend about $30 million more in operating expenses than they collect.

The finance plan also fails to repay $556,000 of the $2.8 million in property taxes officials borrowed for the Red Sox’s new stadium, according to the plan and Clerk of Court documents.

The internal loan was supposed to be repaid with interest before 2016, but the financial plan decreases annual payments — not accounting for interest — and leaving the more than $500,000 principal debt.

Winton said county officials will look to reconcile the model with the amount actually owed on the loan.

As for the more than $6.5 million the county is supposed to pay out-of-pocket for improvements before 2016, Winton said there’s room to do it.

The financial plan calls for the county to spend down a $7.2 million balance in its tourist tax fund to cover the costs, according to actual balance figures cited for fiscal year 2011-12 in the finance plan.

But that fund only had $4.9 million at end of 2011-12, according to Clerk of Court records.

Winton couldn’t explain the difference, but said the county can defer so-called “subordinate expenses” to make up for shortfalls. Subordinate expenses include the $5 million in property taxes officials borrowed in 2011 to buy 14 acres of land to expand Hammond Stadium.

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Winton also said the county has not projected increases in tourist taxes for the next three years, which could bring in extra revenue.

Afterward, the plan calls for revenues to increase by 1 percent and then 2 percent every year for 26 years.

Tourist tax collections are coming off a record breaking year, taking in $26.7 million – an 11.2 percent increase over its second highest year ever in 2011. On average, tourist taxes have grown by 3.37 percent every year, according to county documents.

But they’ve also fallen in three of the last 10 years, most recently in 2009, according to county documents.

Commissioner Frank Mann said if worst comes to worst, the county can look to other parts of the tourist tax fund that are dedicated to marketing, and taking care of beaches and shorelines.

In December 2008, the commission took 20 percent of tourist tax money reserved for beach preservation and put it toward a stadium for the Red Sox.

“Baseball will torpedo our ability to market ourselves in the future, as well as restore our beaches, as well as make capital improvements to other tourist attractions,” Commissioner Brian Bigelow said. “It’s just going to ruin our ability to compete with other areas of the state and the world.”

While the county finances the stadium, the Twins will keep revenues from parking, food and ticket sales.

For their part the Twins will pay, on average, $539,000 a year in rent. That amount represents a $239,000 average increase over the $300,000 they pay. The team will contribute $40,000 a year for improvements on the stadium, according to the contract.

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Aside from county funded improvements, the team will pay $3.9 million for dorm rooms in a player academy. The county, however, will foot a share of the cost for the academy, spending $7.2 million for a theater, kitchen, dining and laundry room, classrooms and recreational amenities, according to documents.

Mann said the county’s financial advisers are comfortable with the projections and he’s confident debt will be repaid.

Republican commission candidate Cecil Pendergrass said the teams have to pick up more of the costs and he hopes the commission holds off on the Twins’ decision until after the new commission takes office.

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