Mayor Promises Veto

A City Council vote to pay a shopping center developer $1 million for public improvements around the Orange Park site will be vetoed, Mayor Ken Combs says. The City Council, which is taking up the matter this week, agreed in 1998 to reimburse Gulfport Retail Partnership Inc. for up to $2.8 million in drainage, streets, landscaping and other work to help the company develop the $70 million Crossroads Shopping Center. The city agreed to ``tax increment financing'' for the project.

Under this arrangement, the city agreed to borrow money once the improvements were made, reimburse the developer, then use the property tax revenue the shopping center produces to pay back the loans. Gulfport Retail Partnership says it has made improvements and should be reimbursed. But Combs and some other city leaders are questioning exactly what public improvements the company made around the shopping center. They said the company promised in writing to line a ditch with concrete near the shopping center, but has failed to do so. The ditch project will cost an estimated $2.3 million, more than double the original estimate.

Gulfport Retail Partnership says it should not be required to work on the ditch because of the cost of the project and the amount of improvements it has already made. Combs said the company has not lived up to its agreement with the city. He wants the city to concrete the ditch and use taxes the center generates to pay for the work instead of reimbursing the company. ``If the City Council gives it to them, they better have enough votes to override my veto because I'm going to veto it,'' Combs said. Five of the council's seven members can override a mayoral veto.

Dave Berndt, a representative of Gulfport Retail Partners, signed a letter in 1998 saying that the company would concrete the ditch. At the council meeting last week, Berndt said he signed that letter under duress because he felt his building permits would not be issued until he agreed. Berndt said the original estimates to improve the ditch were from $800,000 to $1 million.