Orioles camp plan may be rescued Florida officials may appeal tax ban, hold new referendum

November 06, 1991|By Jennifer Lenhart | Jennifer Lenhart,Special to The Sun

NAPLES, Fla. -- The elected leaders of this slow-paced Gulf Coast community decided yesterday to work at a fast clip to restore the local tourist tax and try to preserve the Baltimore Orioles' plans for a spring training complex the tax would finance.

Collier County commissioners say they are determined to get the tax back onto the books, but whether the vehicle to do that is the courts or the voters, the tax probably won't be back for a year.

The commission voted unanimously to hold a second tourist tax referendum in 1992, and file for a re-hearing at the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, Fla., which threw out the 3 percent tax last week.

The commission also said it would be willing to discuss a settlement with the hoteliers who filed the suit in 1990, claiming that the commission acted against the advice of the hotel industry.

Collier County voters approved the tax, 68 percent to 32 percent. The ballot measure set aside one-third of the 3 percent tax to build the Orioles' spring training complex.

Commissioners say they want to preserve the tax as voters approved it, which includes baseball.

"I'm not prepared to give [baseball] away, nor do I think we have the right to do that," commissioner Michael Volpe said.

Orioles senior vice president Tom Daffron said the team remains interested in Collier County despite the setback: "We don't have a funding mechanism, but it does seem to me we can still proceed on a lot of other fronts. We can look for the land first. That's not ideal, but we don't seem to have any other choices."

The Orioles have switched training sites four times in a year and still haven't reached an agreement with the county.

The commission did not chose the easy route yesterday. Collier County attorney Ken Cuyler said the court is not likely to dismiss the Oct. 30 ruling overturning the tax. And Volpe said the court might not even agree to the rehearing.

"The likelihood of them rehearing this is probably less than 50-50," Volpe said.

The state of Florida created the tax to help pay for tourism promotion. The law allows the tourism industry to help develop taxes in individual counties by giving the industry 33 percent representation on local tourist development councils, which have nine members.

Collier's tourist development council studied the tax for one year, then voted against it. The commission submitted the tax to voters anyway. The appeals court says that's where the county erred.

Still reeling from the defeat, commissioners said they wanted to ask the court to reconsider the ruling. Commissioners said that the court should at least be able to tell the county how to dispose of the $4.7 million that's already been collected. The money wasn't addressed in the ruling.

Cuyler said the hearing would give the appeals court the chance to expand on its ruling and perhaps give the county commission one last chance to save the tax. The ruling noted that the commission could have pushed the tourist development council harder to adopt a tourist tax plan, since its main job is drafting a plan.

"The ruling says there is no evidence that the commission attempted to compel the TDC to come up with a plan," Cuyler said. "It intimates that perhaps there is some further action that you can take."

The county attorney's office must file its motions for a re-hearing by Nov. 14, and the hoteliers will have 10 days to respond.

Commissioner Burt Saunders said Joe Freni, the lead plaintiff and general manager of the Ritz-Carlton of Naples, has offered to discuss a settlement with the county and attempt to find a way to save the $4.7 million that has been collected. Saunders called Freni's offer "gracious."

Freni has not returned calls since the court handed down its ruling.

But Cathy Reiman, an attorney for the hoteliers, said the only subject the clients wish to discuss is keeping the $4.7 million.

"The best the hoteliers could do is to agree not to seek a refund of that money," she said. "The hoteliers are not going to abandon the ruling that they fought for for so long."

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