Orbitals

God's Skating Room
Blighted land beneath interstate highway overpasses affects neighboring homes and businesses, decreasing property values and inviting those undesirable elements that make city life so interesting.

In St. Petersburg's North Downtown (NoDo) neighborhood, the interstate-covered block at Martin Luther King Street North and Fourth Avenue is among the last seedy parcels in a neighborhood rejuvenated by downtown investments.

One option to clean up the land is to install hibachi grills, hammocks and picnic tables for the homeless who congregate there every winter. But in a city that installs bars on benches to prevent street-walking derelicts from having a comfortable night's rest, such a solution isn't likely to find support in God's Waiting Room.

Lee Metzger, manager of St. Petersburg's Department of Leisure Services, has another idea: a skate park. Metzger's park would include tracks and ramps for skateboarders and inline skaters. The location is ideal, according to Metzger, because the roof created by the interstate would actually be a plus since it blocks sun and rain.

After Metzger presented the plan to the NoDo Neighborhood Association, the membership voted 4 to 1 in favor of the skate park. Residents of Suncoast Towers, condominiums adjacent to the proposed site, raised safety concerns.

But there's one caveat: St. Pete doesn't want to operate the skate park.

The city would like to lease the land, currently owned by the Department of Transportation, to a company that would operate the skate park as a business. "We're looking for a turnkey operation," Metzger said.

The city has a similar relationship with St. Petersburg Times attorney George Rahdert, who leases two tennis courts from the city for an outdoor skate park. Rahdert's kids are avid skaters. Gary Sullivan, owner of Florida Oceansports, manages the park, which charges $3 admission Sunday to Thursday and $4 admission Friday and Saturday.

The Department of Leisure Services is holding an informational meeting for those interested in making a proposal to operate the skate park. Final proposals are due Aug. 7 and will then be handed over to a City Council subcommittee.

Among those submitting a proposal is Rahdert, who has not decided whether he would move his current skate park from Coquina Key or operate a second, more centrally located one at Martin Luther King Street North and Fourth Avenue.
—Trevor Aaronson

What, Corbett Pay Taxes?
In his continuing effort to pick the pockets of Hillsborough County taxpayers, politically connected Tampa businessman Dick Corbett has suffered a legal setback.

A state appellate court has decided that Corbett is not entitled to a property tax exemption for a golf course that he used to operate on public land near Tampa International Airport.

In late June, the Second District Court of Appeal overturned Hillsborough Circuit Judge James D. Arnold, who had ruled last year that Corbett didn't have to pay his 1997 and 1998 taxes on the land, even though the golf course was a for-profit operation.

Corbett ran the golf operation on a portion of 155 acres that he leases from the county aviation authority. He has since found an upscale mall developer to build International Plaza on the site.

His lease, a sweetheart deal by any standard, has come under heavy editorial criticism in Tampa Bay area newspapers during the past two years. Federal auditors and government watchdogs estimate that Corbett's friends at the aviation authority will cost taxpayers upwards of $500-million.

That's the estimate of what taxpayers will lose over the 80 or so years remaining on the lease because the aviation authority is charging Corbett rent that reflects just a fraction of the land's true value. (See "What a Difference a Decade Makes," Weekly Planet, May 1-7, 2002 at www.weeklyplanet.com/2002-05-02/news_feature.html.)

On the property tax question, Corbett's lawyers argued before Arnold that their client deserved an exemption because the golf course served a public purpose by being open to any duffer who came in off the street.

Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner didn't buy Corbett's rationale for tax avoidance, but Arnold did. The appeals court has now sided with Turner.

If the appellate ruling stands, Corbett is looking at about $500,000 in back taxes for the two years in dispute. If Corbett can get the appeal appealed successfully, the people who pay property taxes in Hillsborough will have made a half-million-dollar contribution to the county treasury on his behalf.

A trio of appellate judges pointed out in their June 28 opinion that the state Supreme Court has spoken on the issue. A private enterprise intending to make money cannot legally avoid property taxes just because the real estate where business is conducted has been leased from the government.

The appellate judges reversed Arnold's decision and remanded the dispute back to the trial judge with instructions. A layperson's interpretation of those instructions from the appeals court to Judge Arnold would be: Try again and get it right this time.
—Francis X. Gilpin

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