The never-ending quest to bail out the Hamilton County stadium fund has circled back around to ticket surcharges again: Hamilton County Administrator Patrick Thompson has proposed an additional ticket tax of between 1.8 percent and 3.9 percent on Bengals and Reds tickets, plus property tax hikes to help fill an expected $130 million shortfall over the next five years.
Only one problem: The Bengals say they won’t go along with a ticket tax, rightly understanding that it would cut into their ability to jack up ticket prices as high as the market would otherwise bear. And both teams have the right to veto any ticket surcharges under their godawful stadium leases, so don’t hold your breath waiting for this one to happen.
Public stadium spending always has a cost — public anything spending always has a cost, as it’s money that can’t be used elsewhere — but it’s seldom made as explicit as in last week’s proposal by Hamilton County commissioner Greg Hartmann to pay for shortfalls in Cincinnati’s stadium funds by cutting health care spending on the poor.
Hartmann’s plan has drawn tons of criticism since, with his fellow commissioner (and longtime stadium critic) Todd Portune saying it proposed paying for ‚Äúsports palaces on the backs of the sick, the injured, the destitute and the poor,” while the Cincinnati Enquirer called it “outrageous” and “simply wrong on several levels.” The Cincinnati city council chimed in on Monday, passing a resolution to oppose the plan, with the resolution’s sponsor saying Hartmann’s scheme “basically takes from the poor, you might say, basically to give to the rich.”
All of which is true, but it’s worth noting that the original stadium-funding plan — a half-cent sales tax hike, which is currently running shortfalls thanks to the broken economy — was no less so: Not only do sales taxes hit the poor much harder than the rich, but that’s a revenue stream that now can’t be used for other public benefits (including hospital funding for the poor).
The real problem was giving to the rich in the first place — the only thing left to battle over now is whether to take from the poor (via health care cuts) or the middle class (via property tax hikes, the elephant in the room that the county commission is desperately trying to avoid). Nobody’s proposing trying to get the money back from the teams themselves — though I guess Portune tried that with his antitrust suit, only to be tripped up by that pesky statute of limitations.
Hamilton County, Ohio, is now projecting that its stadium fund will run a $13.2 million deficit for the year 2010 if tax revenues dip by a mere two percent, an amount that might be conservative in light of hard times. Commissioners are hoping to get concessions from the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals [ed. note: Good luck with that], and/or cuts from the Cincinnati Public Schools to close the gap.
Long before Bernie Madoff, Hamilton County Commissioners and insiders in the Cincinnati area knew that a day of reckoning would come as bills for the two stadiums came due. In 2004, County Commissioner Phil Heimlich called the stadium debt a “fiscal time bomb,” suggesting service cuts may be needed in the future.
Since schools have a tougher time threatening to relocate, the smart money on who will make the most concessions might be placed on education. The county could roll back property tax relief, but the commissioners argue that would be “the last option they will consider.”
One possible way to close the gap might be to offer naming rights to someone for the Bengals’ stadium, something that Bengals owner Mike Brown bypassed so that he could put his Dad’s name on the new facility. Betting that the taxpayers of Hamilton County will be able to benefit from naming rights revenue might be as unwise as betting on Cincinnati Reds games if you were a local legend.
The New Jersey Nets revealed a few weeks ago that they’ll be dropping “New Jersey” from their road uniforms this season, as part of their never-ending plans to move to Brooklyn one of these years. And apparently New Jersey state senator Kevin O’Toole just noticed, because he’s hopping mad:
“New Jersey’s professional sports teams, the Nets, Jets and Giants, have no problem feeding at the taxpayer funded trough, yet seem to forget who their benefactors are when they order the teams’ uniforms,” O’Toole said. “The taxpayers of this state have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into infrastructure upgrades in the Meadowlands where all the teams play their home games. Is it too much to ask that professional sports teams that benefit from the support of the New Jersey taxpayer recognize the state on their uniforms?”
Actually, given the going rate for uniform advertising, you could argue that for “hundreds of millions of dollars” the Nets should have the outline of the state shaved into their hair, too.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes is calling on the county to sell its luxury suites that it got as part of the deal to build the Reds‘ and Bengals‘ new stadiums, or at least get “something else of value” in exchange for giving them back to the teams: “At a time when county employees are losing their jobs … it is simply irresponsible and wrong to be giving away for free these assets.”
In the county’s defense, at least the suites are available to non-profit groups and by lottery to county residents, which is a public benefit of some kind, albeit only to a lucky few members of the public. That’s better than some other deals I could name.