Cuyahoga exec says subsidy-for-wins plan just one option: “Hey, I’m open to ideas”

As promised, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald held a press conference yesterday to propose taking 20% of the public “sin tax” subsidies approved for the Cleveland Cavs, Indians, and Browns last month and making them contingent on the teams winning games. Under FitzGerald’s plan, which he called a (wait for it) “win tax,” a “fan advisory council” would come up with the actual criteria for how the $52 million in tax money would be divvied up among the teams based on wins and losses.

A couple of hours after that, no doubt spurred by my description of his idea as “walking the fine line between stupid and clever” (politicians just can’t resist a good Spinal Tap reference), FitzGerald called me to explain further just what the heck he was thinking. Among the questions he answered:

What on earth made you come up with this idea? “The tax issue that passed didn’t set up a distribution method,” he explained. When his staff got together after the vote to talk about how to divide the $260 million pie among the three teams, one idea he came up with was to “do something to address performance of these franchises over the past 50 years.”

Do the teams really need an added incentive to win, given that they’re already rewarded with 1) wins and 2) added revenue from people buying tickets to see winning teams? “I don’t think this is something that is going to be of such force that it’s all of a sudden going to take a team not inclined to care about winning and turn it around,” said FitzGerald. Not that he wanted to imply that Cleveland’s sports team owners didn’t care, mind you — the man’s a politician after all — but, as he put it, “Have there ever been instances in America of team owners not caring about winning? Yes.” Adding an additional economic incentive might tip some kind of balance, or at least let teams know that Clevelanders want their teams to win, in case the Indians’ attendance numbers didn’t tip them off.

Is winning games really the most important thing to be paying teams for? What about economic impact or something more tangible? FitzGerald said he’s open to ideas for tying subsidy levels to other factors as well, such as economic development or local hiring. (I threw out Jay Weiner‘s old suggestion for requiring a certain number of affordable tickets in exchange for public subsidies, and he said that could be part of the mix, too: “Hey, I’m open to ideas.”) There’s still that other 80% of the money that needs to be handed out, after all, so somebody needs to come up with some criteria for how to do that.

Is all this legal? FitzGerald’s lawyers think so. Scoring systems for payment are something that “happens with construction contracts all the time,” he said, so why should this be any different?

Did he really say that Cuyahoga County had to adjust its budget when LeBron James left?That’s what he said. More specifically, overall ticket tax revenues went down the year that James bolted for Miami, something he attributes to suburban fans spending their money closer to home rather than going to Cavs games: “It doesn’t mean they all stayed home on their couch.”

In short, FitzGerald made clear that he’s mostly just trying to start a conversation here, though you’re welcome to wonder how much his big ideas are motivated by wanting to reform the process and how much by wanting to juice his gubernatorial campaign. (Not that you can really ever separate the two when someone is running for public office.) Nothing’s going to get decided until the county council signs off on it, which doesn’t need to happen until the sin tax extension kicks in next spring, so this is likely to be a long conversation.

On the stupid side of the ledger, none of this really matters, because the teams are going to get the $260 million regardless — any funding criteria will just determine who gets what. (In other words, if all three teams continue to lose, they’ll still get paid.) And as Deadspin points out, paying based on straight wins could encourage bad long-term decisions, since “there are often times when it’s good to lose, like when tanking for a draft pick.”

On the clever side, though, it’s never bad to be talking about what you can demand from team owners in exchange for public funds, even if it’s just a matter of trying to get them to compete with each other for a pool of preexisting money. Yes, it might have been better for FitzGerald — who signed off on the sin tax referendum back in January — to bring all this up before the vote, so that taxpayers would actually get their money back if the teams didn’t live up to their promises of creating economic development and winning championships. But, you know, baby steps.

UPDATE: Just noticed that WCPN’s Nick Castele (whose show I appeared on yesterday — listen to it here) points out that Ohio state senator Shirley Smith did propose a subsidies-for-wins formula before the sin tax vote. It went nowhere, but credit for trying.

Cuyahoga official wants to tie Indians, Cavs, Browns subsidies to teams actually winning games

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald has an idea for deciding how to hand over those $260 million in new cigarette and alcohol taxes approved last month to the Cleveland Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns, and it’s a doozy:

FitzGerald is expected on Thursday to propose tying distribution of 20 percent of the county’s sin tax to on-the-field performance from Cleveland’s professional sports teams, according to sources briefed on the plan.

The 20 percent — estimated to be at least $2.6 million a year — would be awarded to FirstEnergy Stadium, Progressive Field or Quicken Loans Arena based on the success of the teams using the facilities.

That’s … kinda crazy, but it just might work? An example of walking the fine line between stupid and clever? On the upside, if part of the value of a sports team to taxpayers is getting to jump up and down when your team wins, then creating an incentive for your team to win — other than the normal incentive of, you know, winning — makes a kind of sense. On the other hand, I have no idea how they’d write this into law — subsidy dollars based on winning percentage? bonuses for making the playoffs? — so right now it seems a bit like pandering to sports fans unhappy with their favorite teams’ owners getting money when the teams all suck. Tune in this afternoon for more details, maybe.

Voters approve $260m in new sin tax money for Cavs, Indians, Browns

The extension of Cuyahoga County’s “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes passed yesterday by a 56-44% margin (with 97% of precincts reporting), providing an estimated $260 million over the next 20 years to fund venue improvements — including in at least one case a new scoreboard — for the Cleveland Cavs, Indians, and Browns. If the tax had failed, the teams had threatened to … well, we’ll never know what they were threatening to do now, will we?

With the votes counted, the next challenge is to figure out whether this ballot lives up to the 100-to-1 rule, where stadium funding is only approved in public votes if the proponents outspend opponents by more than that margin. At first glance this rule still holds — the three teams spent “at least $1.8 million” on the pro-sin-tax effort through early May, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, while opponents reported raising only $6,500 — but another group spent $125,000 on last-second TV ads opposing the plan, which would make the spending ratio more like 13:1. Unless the teams had a last-second spending splurge of their own, which is always possible. We’ll just have to wait for the final box score.

Cleveland votes on sin tax as teams lobby heavily for measure they say isn’t to benefit them, heaven forfend

It’s Cleveland sin tax vote day today, with opponents decrying what they say is a $260 million giveaway to the city’s sports teams (more like $160-200 million in present value), and proponents saying the city will give the money to the teams anyway, so the sin tax extension is just a way to pay the public’s already-accrued bills.

If the latter is true, though, you have to wonder why those teams that would get the money regardless are working so damn hard to get this ballot measure to pass:

The three teams are fighting to ensure that sin tax money will help assuage those costs—of the $1.4 million raised by Keep Cleveland Strong, the pro-sin-tax PAC, more than $1 million has come from the Browns, Cavs, and Indians. The opposing PAC, Coalition Against the Sin Tax, has raised a mere $6,500.

Teams aren’t just tossing in cash to make sure taxpayers help foot the bill for new scoreboards. The Indians instructed ushers to wear pro-sin-tax stickers on Opening Day, according to an employee instruction sheet a former usher gave to Cleveland.com. While the Indians had told reporters that the stickers were purely voluntary, the handout reads, “An Issue 7 Keep Cleveland Strong sticker is part of your uniform. Place it chest high on your outermost layer.” The former usher, Edward Loomis, said he was fired by the team after refusing to wear the sticker.

Even as Cuyahoga County voters cast their ballots, they still don’t have an answer to the question: What happens if the sin tax extension fails? Depending on how things go today at the polls, we could have an answer starting tomorrow.

Cleveland council prez says ad that calls giving tax money to teams a gift is “far from honest”

The Cuyahoga County vote on a sin tax extension to fund venue improvements for the Cleveland Indians, Cavs, and Browns isn’t until next Tuesday, but we already have supporters of the measure accusing opponents of dirty pool:

The Coalition for Greater Cleveland’s Future says in a complaint filed Wednesday with the Ohio Elections Commission that an ad paid for by the Citizens Against Unfair Taxes (CAUT) makes several false claims about the proposed countywide tax on alcohol and tobacco sales. Among them is the assertion that Issue 7 will give the owners of Cleveland’s professional sports teams “$260 million more.”…

“CAUT has been caught misleading the public,” Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, the chief spokesman for the coalition, said in a statement. “Their commercial inaccurately gives the impression that money from extending the tax on alcohol and cigarettes would go to the team owners. That is false. Honest argument is always welcome. This is far from honest.”

The rhetorical pin head that everyone is dancing on here is this: The sin tax will raise an estimated $260 million over 20 years, which would be used to pay renovation and upgrade costs of the teams at their publicly owned buildings. But according to Kelley, the county would have to pay those costs anyway, according to the crappy leases that public officials agreed to with the teams. So it’s not that “money from extending the tax on alcohol and cigarettes would go to the team owners,” it’s that money from extending the tax on alcohol on cigarettes would go to replenish the county’s general fund, and that would be given to the team owners.

Kelley has made this kind of “we have to spend it either way, so we might as well have a way to pay for it” assertion before, but to my knowledge has never actually come out and said that if the sin tax extension is defeated, he and the council will just allocate the money anyway and take it out of other county spending. For that matter, the team owners have never said what they’ll do if the county just up and refuses to pay for venue improvements, even when asked point blank. These issues — as well as whether funding mechanisms that would hit the teams’ bottom line instead of the public’s, such as ticket taxes, are allowable under the lease — would seem to be worthy of discussion in the days leading up to the sin tax vote, but instead we just get each side trying to bash each other public. Ah, democracy.

Crain’s Cleveland editors dis ticket taxes, reveal they don’t understand how ticket taxes work

This Cleveland Scene article about the stadium sin tax debate is a week old, but I just noticed something in it that really needs to be commented on:

Crain’s Cleveland Business published an editorial this week officially endorsing the sin tax as well. They insisted their stance had nothing to do with their connections to the business community; nor was the endorsement a snap decision. “It came after thorough consideration of the legal, practical and economic ramifications.”

Crain’s thinks an admissions tax is “not a smart” option because it would “dampen demand, which would defeat the purpose of using the buildings as magnets to attract people downtown.”

Let’s think this one through for a second. The argument that Crain’s is making (here’s the original editorial) is that tacking on an admission tax would raise ticket prices, making it less likely for people to go to games. And because going to games is the raison d’être of sports facilities — and publications like Crain’s pretend that people who don’t go to games just sit on their money and don’t spend it, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment — that would be a bad thing for the city.

Except that’s not how ticket prices work. Because the marginal cost of selling an extra ticket is pretty close to nil (you might have to hire a couple of additional ushers or hot dog vendors if more people are showing up to the game, but that’s a trivial cost per ticket), team owners are pretty much just setting prices based on what the market will bear — in other words, what people are willing to pay to go to a game instead of doing something else that night. So if Cuyahoga County were to apply a $2 per ticket surcharge, say, then the most likely scenario is that the Indians and Browns and Cavs would all cut ticket prices by around $2 to keep maximizing the amount of revenue they get from ticket sales. (Or, more likely, since teams hate to actually cut prices, they’d just hold off on ticket price hikes they otherwise would have implemented.)

It’s this pricing dynamic that is why virtually all economists count ticket taxes as part of a team owner’s contribution to a stadium project, even though it’s technically public tax money: It ultimately comes out of the owner’s pocket. If admission taxes are a legal possibility (some sports leases prohibit them), they’d actually be a great way for Cuyahoga County to live up to its lease commitment to fund upgrades to Cleveland’s sports facilities without hitting up local taxpayers too badly. Yet another important topic we didn’t have time for during the Octoboxathon.

Cleveland sin tax smackdown: Nobody wins

It’s all over but the shouting mutely because your Skype mic isn’t on, and the upshot of the Great Cleveland City Club Stadium Sin Tax Debate is that … people disagree, I guess?

  • That’s how WKYC-TV summed things up, certainly, recapping the panel discussion featuring Cleveland city council president Kevin Kelley, Cleveland Cavaliers president Len Komoroski, Coalition Against the Sin Tax organizer Peter Pattakos, and yours truly as “a two-on-two verbal showdown” — or as it’s better known, a debate.
  • Cleveland.com’s “five takeaways” from the event were that the Cavs exec and council president were “polished,” that they didn’t answer questions directly, that the anti-sin-tax organizer and myself were “populist,” and “Are there alternatives to the sin tax?” and “What would Cleveland look like without Gateway?” which are actually questions, not takeaways.
  • WCPN radio was the only outlet to note that almost all the audience members in the room were pro-sin tax (helping to explain the one-sided Q&A at the end), while counterposing a quote from Kelley touting the economic impact of sports facilities with a quote from me saying they mostly just move money around from one part of town to another.

If I had to pick one takeaway of my own, it would be: Cable-news-style panel discussions suck. The topic may be well thought-out, the moderator may try to probe for deeper truths (yesterday’s City Club moderator did press Komoroski on what the Cavs would do if the tax extension was defeated, something he ducked entirely, leading to that “didn’t answer questions” takeaway above), but still everyone knows that there are no penalties for unresponsive answers, so everyone just recites their own talking points without really responding to each other. It makes for a decent quote harvest, but doesn’t really enlighten anybody much at all, beyond leaving everyone with the warm squishy feeling that we’re all big enough people to sit together in a room (or appear via holographic projection) and agree to disagree, regardless of things like “evidence” and “facts,” and isn’t that what democracy is all about?

I would far rather have spent an hour having an actual journalist or three interrogate me and my panelmates on why we believe what we believe, possibly even referring to their own independent research on the matter. Instead, we get a situation where there’s no reason not to claim that the War of 1812 started in 1945 — especially when you know that the other guy is likely doing it, too.

Cleveland sin tax smackdown! Live at 12:30 pm ET!

I’m going to be taking part (via Skype) in a live debate today with Cleveland city council president Kevin Kelley, Cavs president Len Komoroski, and Peter Pattakos of the Coalition Against the Sin Tax about the plan to extend the city’s alcohol and cigarette taxes for 20 years and give the proceeds to local sports teams for building upgrades. Supposedly this is going to be webcast live at wkyc.com; tune in between 12:30pm and 1:30pm Eastern and see!

(UPDATE: This looks to be the preferred webcast link: http://learn.uakron.edu/video/cityclub/.)

Cleveland residents could vote in May on $160m in new tax subsidies to Indians, Cavs, Browns

One of the drawbacks of the Googlocene is that everything hangs on keywords; and so, because it didn’t come up in my various searches on “stadium” and “arena,” I completely missed Tuesday’s raucous Cuyahoga County council hearing about putting a measure on the May ballot to extend alcohol and cigarette taxes for 20 years and give the proceeds to local sports teams.

As a refresher: Back in the 1990s, Cuyahoga County built a passel of sports venues for the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers, funding them primarily with tax surcharges on cigarettes, beer, and wine. (Upside: Drinkers and smokers don’t have organized lobbying groups. Downside: “Sin taxes” hit the poor far harder than the rich, who can only drink so many snifters of cognac.) Those taxes are set to expire next year, and the local sports teams see this as a great opportunity to get even more public money for upgrades to their facilities — everything from new water heaters to “replace obsolete scoreboard system,” which I guess fails to meet modern standards of humongosity — without “raising taxes,” since extending taxes that were set to expire doesn’t get counted as raising taxes for some reason.

Under the new plan, the sin tax would be extended for 20 years, raising about $13 million a year that would be directed to the teams. The Cavs and Indians are looking to go roughly 50-50 with that money, though the Browns are expected to demand something as well, albeit a lesser amount given that the Browns are already getting $2 million a year in added city subsidies for their own stadium renovations. The total present value would be about $160 million if the sin tax keeps bringing in the same revenue as it does at present, possibly more like $200 million if inflation causes it to rise.

The original leases on the three venues require the county-owned Gateway Corp. to pay for maintenance on the buildings, and Gateway officials insist that if the sin tax extension isn’t passed, the county would need to either raise the funds some other way, or risk having the teams break their leases and potentiall move elsewhere. That seems a pretty minor risk — there aren’t any open baseball or basketball markets close to Cleveland’s size (#18 in the Nielsen rankings), and while NFL teams don’t care as much about media markets, the Browns just got their own boodle to keep them happy — but it’s apparently the main justification for throwing a couple hundred million dollars in new money at Cleveland’s sports team owners.

The council is set to vote on holding a public ballot measure by the first week in February; if it’s approved as expected, then we should have quite the fun next three months talking about all the economic and ethical ramifications of this. Or just about the power of yes.

Cleveland council approves losing $8m a year on Browns stadium lease instead of $6m a year

The Cleveland city council voted yesterday to approve giving the Browns $2 million a year for the next 15 years to help pay off $120 million in planned stadium renovations. (The measure needed a 12-vote supermajority to win, and snuck by with 13 votes on the 19-member council.) Since the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported over the weekend that the city is currently losing $6 million and change per year on the Browns stadium lease, this will push Cleveland’s losses over the $8 million per year mark.

The anti-funding side may have lost, but at least it prompted a four-hour debate that I’m now sorry I didn’t try to find a webcast of:

At one point, Councilman Tony Brancatelli pulled a red flag from his pocket and threw it on the table, calling out Banner on his comments about how favorable the deal is for the city, compared to what other cities have paid into their athletics facilities. The truth is, Brancatelli said, all of those cities have been held hostage by their contracts with NFL teams.

“We’ve afforded the Browns a lot of luxuries that many businesses who come to this table don’t have,” Brancatelli said.

Much of the debate appears to be about whether the Browns’ renovation requests were for “repairs” (which the city is obligated to pay for) or “capital improvements” (which the city already provides a fund for, but the Browns will now be getting $2 million a year on top of). Which led to exchanges like this one:

“There’s a common sense part of this that if you’re four years past something’s useful life it’s time to replace the scoreboard,” [mayoral chief of staff Ken] Silliman said.

[Councilmember Jeffrey] Johnson snapped back: “Well, I’ve got a common sense approach, too, and it says that we’re about to spend $2 million of my community’s money, and I need you to prove to me me that the scoreboard needs to be fixed today. … Respect me enough to bring me something that proves it. Don’t play me for a dummy.”

From the sound of it, the Cleveland council just punted and said fine, let them have their damn money. Next up, in all likelihood: the Indians!