As Revenue Plunges, Stadium Boom Adds to Municipal Woes
Years after a wave of construction brought publicly financed stadiums costing billions of dollars to cities across the country, taxpayers are once again being asked to reach into their pockets.
From New Jersey to Ohio to Arizona, the stadiums were sold as a key to redevelopment and as the only way to retain sports franchises. But the deals that were used to persuade taxpayers to finance their construction have in many cases backfired, the result of overly optimistic revenue assumptions and the recession.
Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Cincinnati. In 1996, voters in Hamilton County approved an increase of half of one percent in the sales tax that promised to build and maintain stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds, pay Cincinnati’s public schools and give homeowners an annual property tax rebate. The stadiums were supposed to spur development of the city’s dilapidated riverfront.
But sales tax receipts have fallen so fast in the last year that the county is now scrambling to bridge a $14 million deficit in its sales tax fund. The public schools, which deferred taking their share for years, want their money.
The teams have not volunteered to rewrite their leases. So in the coming weeks, the county plans to cut basic services, lower its legal bills and drain a bond reserve fund with no plan for paying it back.
“Anyone looking at this objectively knows it’s a train wreck,” said Dusty Rhodes, the county auditor. “I told them they were making a big mistake, but they didn’t want to hear me.”
Mark Rosentraub, the author of the book “Major League Losers,” said that many of the stadium deals included “revenue bombs,” with financial traps like balloon payments on debt in later years and sweeteners like the Hamilton County property tax rebate to win public support.
In many cases, the architects of the deals are long gone by the time the bill comes due.
“This is one of the effects of the economic tsunami sweeping through,” Rosentraub said of the deficits.
The 1996 proposal to build stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds had plenty of proponents. The economy was growing, Riverfront Stadium was outdated and the Bengals were hinting that they would move, as the Browns had done.
The plan went awry almost from the start. The football stadium exceeded its budget by $50 million, forcing the county to issue more bonds. Forecasts for growth in the sales tax turned out to be too rosy. The teams received sweetheart leases. In 2000, voters threw out the county commissioners who cut the deal.
…Critics like Rhodes contend that the tax was never meant to pay for the real estate project. But Cincinnati business leaders, eager to reverse the flow of money to the suburbs, say the stadiums were just the beginning of a transformation of the riverfront.
…the gap between expected and actual sales taxes continues to grow, something the county administration had been warning for years. In August, the administrator predicted not only a $14 million shortfall next year, but also a $94 million gap in 2014, a year after interest payments on the stadium bonds rise 44 percent.
Last month, two of the three commissioners voted against cutting the property tax rebate, fearing a voter backlash. Raising the sales tax again was not proposed for the same reason.
“It can’t be 100 percent on the backs of taxpayers,” said Greg Hartmann, the lone Republican commissioner. “We gave away too much to keep the Bengals in Cincinnati. There has to be some middle ground.”
Hartmann and Portune want to introduce a tobacco tax, but lawmakers in Columbus, the state capital, may be unwilling to approve it.
So they have ordered more cuts in basic county administrative services, something that creates a slippery slope, said David Pepper, the commissioner who voted against the proposal.
“It’s like the movie where the blob keeps growing and eating away at other elements of county government,” Pepper said. “We’re beginning to cross a line in the sand by taking money from the general fund to pay for the stadiums. Once you put that money in jeopardy, you put the whole county at risk.”
New York Times, December 25, 2009