Referendum or not, still a bad deal

I don’t know whether it’s just a further escalation of the contempt in which professional sports plutocrats hold the public, or if somebody secretly slipped sodium pentothal into his water. Either way, Miami Dolphins CEO Mike Dee really let the cat out of the bag Sunday when he was asked during a television interview if a proposed $199 million taxpayer subsidy for the Dolphins’ privately owned stadium isn’t just “welfare for billionaires.”

“Just because somebody is wealthy enough doesn’t mean he should invest money in a way that is unwise,” Dee declared. He could hardly have been more straightforward: Unwise investments are strictly for the taxpaying saps. NFL and Major League Baseball owners certainly didn’t get to be billionaires by risking their own money on outlandishly expensive boondoggles. They use ours instead.

Hardly a day goes by without a gluttonous new demand for taxpayer money from these tycoon panhandlers:

• In St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rays are warning that Major League Baseball may fold the team if they aren’t allowed to rip up their lease and move to a new stadium built by another city. No matter that St. Pete has done $105 million in renovations for the Rays in the past 15 years; no matter that the lease runs through 2027.

But it’s not like the Rays don’t have some helpful suggestions for how the city can recoup its $235 million in Tropicana Field: Tear it down and rent the land to some other sucker who hasn’t been listening to the Rays complain about what a lousy location it’s in, advised team vice president Michael Kalt.

• In Charlotte, the NFL Carolina Panthers last year asked the city for $80 million to refurbish their private stadium, a bit startling since the place only cost $250 million to build just 16 years earlier. When that request didn’t trigger apoplexy in any public officials, the Panthers realized they had low-balled themselves and upped the ante to $125 million.

At that point, Charlotte City Council members got tough and held a closed-door meeting with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, where they cleverly bargained the subsidy up to $143.75 million. Now, the team plans to ask the state of North Carolina to kick in another $62 million or so. At least, that’s today’s figure.

• In Oakland, one of the brokest and most crime-ridden cities in America, city officials got rid of 138 cops in 2011 to cover a budget deficit. What they didn’t cut: a $14 million operating subsidy to the city stadium where NFL Raiders and the baseball A’s play. That was too tragic to be funny, but you’ve got to laugh at the news last week that the Raiders are closing off 10,000 seats in the stadium because attendance is so low. Those are exactly the same 10,000 seats that the city paid $200 million to build in 1996 to lure the Raiders back from Los Angeles, where they had moved in return for another sweetheart deal.

There’s no end to this field-of-schemes narrative. (OK, I confess, I stole that phrase from authors Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause, whose excellent book by that name has now evolved into the informative if horrifying website.) Professional sports owners and their politician toadies swindle taxpayers out of their money every day all over America.

Taxpayers pay 78 percent of the bill for the average sports facility and team owners just 22 percent, Harvard urban-planning Prof. Judith Grant Long revealed in her exhaustively researched book Public/Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities, released last year. She found that team owners and politicians low-ball the real cost of stadium subsidies — perhaps by as much as $10 billion in recent years — by concealing such costs as land, infrastructure, operations and lost property tax.

That figure shouldn’t come as any surprise to South Florida taxpayers, who in recent months have learned that what was supposed to be a $550 million subsidy to the Marlins’ stadium will balloon to something like $2.3 billion by the time they’ve finished paying off all the bonds required by the deal.

Nobody has yet calculated the real cost of what the Dolphins are portraying as a $199 million taxpayer gift to their stadium. (At least, nobody who’s been willing to make the numbers public.) But you can bet it will approach $1 billion before the accountants finally close their books. The Dolphins have now magnanimously said they’ll permit a public referendum on the deal. And when you go into the voting booth, I suggest you remember what Mike Dee said: This isn’t a wise investment. That’s why the Dolphins want to do it with your money instead of theirs.

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