In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Scoreboard: Panthers $4.2 million, taxpayers zip

The Florida Panthers picked up a $4.2 million bauble this week, a new digital scoreboard, courtesy of the taxpayers. Not that taxpayers had any say in the deal.

Apparently, Broward County’s gonna need a $4.2 million scoreboard just to keep track of the economic benefits that come with such a wondrous gadget.

Once a new state-of-the-art scoreboard dangles from the ceiling of the Sunrise hockey arena, hordes of tourists (who undoubtedly have been holding off on vacation plans until the county commission voted Tuesday) will fairly stampede into Broward’s western suburbs.

The county commissioners were told, and seemed to accept, that a new scoreboard will generate at least 43,000 nights in Broward hotel rooms, perhaps as many as 110,000 over the next three years. The imagined economic impact ranged from a “minimum guaranteed” $125.5 million to “potential” $372.5 million. That’s a lot of potential. That’s a lot of imagination.

The arena has been struggling along with a 15-year-old scoreboard, described as unreliable and outdated. No wonder the Florida Panthers finished twenty-second in home attendance in the National Hockey League. Nothing to do with the NHL’s most woeful won-lost record. It was that damn antique scoreboard.

The Panthers provided testimony supporting the projected economic impact. A representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses told the commissioners that a multi-year deal to hold the annual church convention at the arena (known lately as the BB&T Center) hinged on a new scoreboard. (Why the Witnesses need a digital scoreboard might invite satirical speculation but, given the perilous state of my own mortal soul, I’ll leave that to the readers.)

The county commission happened to take up the Panthers’ request on the very same day Miami-Dade County released early voting results from an aborted referendum on whether to invest county tax money fixing up the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. The election was canceled after the Florida Legislature failed to pass enabling legislation, but not before 60,678 early voters had filled out their ballots. They weren’t enthused. About 57 percent voted No.

The early results could not have surprised anyone outside of the Dolphins’ front office. Voters are not fond of giving away public money to professional sports teams. Of course, the scoreboard giveaway was hardly on the scale of the Dolphins’ proposal, but I’m fairly certain most Broward citizens, if anyone bothered to ask, would say that the Panthers should pay for their own damn scoreboard.

Broward County Auditor Evan Lukic seemed to suggest something along those lines. He discovered that the management company created by the hockey team to run the arena and distribute its proceeds has overpaid the Panthers $4.2 million. Which would be exactly enough to pay for a new scoreboard.

Lukic also noted other instances of the Arena Operating Company’s shoddy bookkeeping. The Panthers’ very sweet deal (putting the county $191.4 million in debt for the cost of building the arena while giving the team control of all events, hockey and otherwise) came with a few minimal obligations. Lukic reported Tuesday that the team was late on eight required financial reports, including a budget report that had been due back on Aug. 1, 2011.

But the commissioners seemed unfazed by the Panthers’ slipshod approach to contractual obligations. They shrugged off their auditor’s advice and voted to fund the magical new scoreboard. Of course, this was just a piddling amount compared to what the county already contributes to that hockey palace.

The Panthers pay $4.6 million a year for exclusive control of the arena, but the county’s annual debt payments are $14.6 million. The balance comes from public funds: $8 million from the county’s hotel bed tax and $2 million from a state sales tax rebate.

By comparison, the Dolphins said they would pay more than half the cost of renovating Sun Life Stadium. Instead of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Dolphins promised to bring in a Super Bowl. Yet voters still seemed inclined to say no, let the Dolphins pay for their own improvements.

I’m guessing most Broward residents would not abide giving Panthers another $4.2 million in addition to $10 million a year in taxes and rebates that the team already enjoys in its Sunrise digs. I’m guessing voters would be willing to risk offending all those thousands of purported visitors whose plans hinge on a new scoreboard in the BT&T Center. Of course, the voters had no say in the matter.

I think six commissioners voted in favor of the $4.2 million allocation, two said no and one abstained. Hard to be sure. If only they had a scoreboard.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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