Yankees’ terrible “community benefits fund” is even more terrible than you imagined

After the New York Yankees and Bronx elected officials set up a charitable organization in 2006 to assuage fears that the team’s new taxpayer-subsidized stadium would be bad for the local community, the charity came under fire for being used as a slush fund by its Yankees-appointed administrator and for handing out lots of money to dubious nonprofit groups that may not actually have been nonprofit. The New York Times completed an in-depth investigation into the New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits Fund yesterday, and it turns out everything is on the up and up — ha ha, no, of course not, it’s an even worse train wreck than was suspected previously:

An examination of the fund’s public financial records and interviews with community members and a former administrator of the fund show that it has operated with little oversight or public accountability, neglecting those who live near the stadium and instead sending money to other, often wealthier parts of the Bronx that were not affected by the construction.

The fund also regularly donates to organizations with which it shares common board members. And although the Yankees provide $35,000 a year to cover operating expenses, the fund in 2011 began to allocate 10 percent of the grants it awards to cover its own “additional administrative costs.” Those costs have never been publicly explained…

Of the $6.8 million distributed by the fund between 2008 and 2015, the last year for which records are available, only 30 percent — $2 million — went to charities occupying the same ZIP code as Yankee Stadium or four bordering ZIP codes.

The best way to get money from the Yankees’ community fund, it appears, was not to be in the Yankee Stadium neighborhood that had just lost its central park space for multiple years to make way for construction of the team’s new stadium, but rather to have friends on the charity’s board: the New York Botanical Garden, which has fund chair Serafin Mariel (the same guy who was sued in 2009 over misappropriation of funds) on its board, got $20,000, and the Bronx CUNY Scholarship Fund which Mariel co-founded, got $60,000. And the organization’s annual reports have never been publicly released, going only to the Yankees, who won’t share them. Oh, and the Yankees claim 15,000 tickets a year as an “in-kind donation,” but don’t say who they’re given to.

All this leads up to the best quote in the whole article, and really one of the best quotes in any article:

[Former city councilmember Maria del Carmen] Arroyo [who helped set up the fund with then-borough president Adolfo Carrion] said she did not remember how the board was selected. When asked about some of the board members’ political ties, she said: “This is a small city. You can’t go very far without knowing anyone.”

So who’s to blame for this? The Yankees owners, for setting up a Potemkin charity just so that the city council could claim that the stadium would be good for the South Bronx before voting for it almost unanimously? Or the Bronx pols who turn every policy decision into a way to funnel money to their political donors? That’d both, I’d say, since one hand nicely washed the other here. It’s yet another reminder of the dangers of community benefits agreements — and that if you must do a CBA, for god’s sake, at least have the city government be a signatory to it, so that there’s some opportunity for oversight. Because letting a sports team owner claim credit for doing good works on the grounds of “don’t worry, I’m good for it” is a recipe for disaster.

No, community benefits agreements aren’t the solution to stadium subsidies

Here’s British journalist Ian Betteridge explaining his eponymous law of headlines:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

So when Deadspin runs an article asking, “Has Detroit Found An Answer To The Publicly Financed Stadium Scam?” you should probably approach it with a grain of salt. But for the record, allow me to answer Deadspin’s question:

No.

What the Detroit city council is considering is a law to require community benefits agreements for all development projects. CBAs, as they’re known, are agreements that developers negotiate with local residents, community groups, and other stakeholders committing to jobs and other local benefits as part of a project; as state assemblyperson Rashida Tlaib told Deadspin, “We are allowing these large corporations—companies that could build a hockey arena without our money—to get in the corporate welfare line and take resources away from us. In exchange for what?”

In theory, CBAs sound great: If developers want public money, they have to give the public something in return! In practice, they’re more problematic. While everyone loves to point to the CBA for development around the Staples Center in L.A., which got parks and job training for local residents impacted by the new construction, there are far more CBAs that haven’t worked out as well: The one the New York Yankees set up, for example, which arranged for a “charity” that handed out benefits to several groups that barely existed, and which didn’t bother to keep track of how many Bronx residents were hired at the new stadium. There’s also the problem of how the “community” is defined: then-New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner famously paid to set up community groups that he could then negotiate a CBA with, over the objections of much of the rest of the community.

And even when CBAs are legit, more or less, there’s still the problem that they’re less a referendum on whether pumping public money into a development project is good for a city as a whole, and more a way for community members to demand a cut of the boodle. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — as Tlaib implies, at least if you’re shelling out all that money, you might as well demand something in return — but it can end up being just an easily applied fig leaf for developers, and an incentive for community groups to trade their support for what amounts to a cash payoff, rather than keeping the broader public interest in mind.

So, points to Deadspin for covering this, but more points off for a misleading clickbaity headline. Developers may hate the mandatory-CBA plan — developers hate mandatory-anything plans — but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.