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My View

 

Date: July 30, 2009
by: Rod Thomson | Gulf Coast Business Review

 
 

Spring training is back in Sarasota with the Baltimore Orioles. Great for baseball fans. So-so for the rest of the community. Bad for the principles of limited government and county taxpayers. Possibly horrible for city taxpayers (who are also county taxpayers).

For those of us who were howling over the attempt to shell out $70 million in local taxpayer money to land the Boston Red Sox, this is a little like kissing your sister. Yes, in that this proposal will “only” cost $31 million, we can console ourselves with the possibility that we helped save Sarasota taxpayers $39 million.

But on principle, limited government still lost. The concept of publicly-funded professional sports in Sarasota or anywhere is just poor pubic policy and anathema to foundational freedoms associated with small government.

However, the details of the agreement and the speed at which it happened is unhappily reminiscent of Congress during the February stimulus-package approval. That was rushed through without any members of Congress actually reading it, let alone understanding the ramifications. And we now see what a horrible mistake that was as we have larded up future taxpayers with $787 billion in debt for nothing but political self-aggrandizement.

Here are a few of the lowlights of the baseball deal:

• Undue speed. The full inter-local agreement, with amendments calling for the city to cede ownership and control of Ed Smith Stadium to the county for $1 and cover all cleanup costs, was delivered 75 minutes before the meeting.

Although commissioners had talked about the issues previous to that, they did not see until just minutes ahead of voting the final document with the controversial environmental cleanup amendment committing the city for 30 years.

“It would have been wise to allow a few more days for discussion,” said Commissioner Kelly Kirschner, in an understatement of common sense.

• Taxpayers left exposed. Within that rushed agreement, there was a stipulation that the city would cover any and all environmental cleanup costs associated with rebuilding Ed Smith Stadium. That is kind of important because the stadium is built on a former dump! Further, there has already been contamination found on an adjoining practice field within the stadium itself.

No one knows what cleanup costs might be.

Obviously, the Orioles did not want to be on the hook for who knows how many millions of dollars. And because the county is already kicking in the maximum amount it can afford for the project, it wanted to be held harmless.

This was a sticking point for Kirschner and Commissioner Terry Turner, who were on the losing end of the commission’s 3-2 vote for the deal.

They both wanted a $1 million cap on the city’s liability, so anything more than that would be on the Orioles’ tab. But county officials said such a cap would scotch the deal. What about a $2 million cap? Or $3 million?
Something? Anything? And remember, this is for the entire 30 years of the agreement.

“You’re giving away a blank check for three decades to be cashed anytime,” Kirschner said. “It’s a really imprudent thing to do.” Another understatement of common sense ignored by his fellow commissioners.

Not only are city taxpayers on the hook for any cleanup expenses, but they also have no control at all over the construction site that may churn up the waste. Taxpayers are completely exposed, and Turner and Kirschner were right to try to protect them.

• Real cost of the project. And the $31 million cost? Not really. Ed Smith Stadium was assessed at $16 million last year. The city gave it to the county, which will not require the Orioles to buy it. But that $16 million is not included in the project’s value — as land values normally are when totaling the cost of a project. If the property’s value was included, the costs would be more like $47 million.
That means opponents of the Red Sox boondoggle only saved taxpayers $23 million.

• Cal is excited! Excitedly, Orioles and county officials spoke excitedly about how excited Cal Ripken is to bring his exciting Little League baseball to Sarasota. Really, really excited.

This was a similar emotional tactic used by proponents of spending $70 million on the Boston Red Sox last year when they spoke of bringing the “World Champions” to Sarasota.

The problem is that nowhere in the contract is there any commitment for Cal Ripken Little League baseball to come to Sarasota. It may or it may not, but it was clearly a tactic to excite commissioners without actually committing to anything.

And for context on how things can change, the Red Sox are not the world champions anymore. They are not even conference champions.

Even for those in favor of public assistance to major league baseball, this was a rushed deal with a dangerous provision for Sarasota taxpayers. If only one more commissioner could see that.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at rthomson@review.net.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

In the rushed deal with the Orioles, Sarasota officials get some sweetheart perks.

Once each season, city and county officials, and any community leaders they designate, get to use the Orioles’ luxury suite at Camden Yards baseball stadium in Baltimore. Officials will also have use of the Orioles’ luxury suite at Nationals’ Park, the Washington Nationals’ stadium just down the road.

And finally, the county (officials, not schmucks) gets 10 prime location tickets for every game, plus preferred parking at no charge.

So just to make sure we all understand this, elected officials vote to use millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, and they get personal perks written into the contract — for themselves.

Got it.

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