When news leaked early this week about Stephen Ross' revised plans to renovate Sun Life Stadium, most taxpayers had the same knee-jerk reaction: Victory! Just a year after public outrage helped sink Ross' request for $127 million from the county, the Dolphins' owner was now ready to open his own wallet to the tune of $350 million to spruce up the place.
Of course there was a catch: He's asking Miami-Dade County to eat about $4 million a year that the team pays in taxes. Though that still sounds like a pretty sweet deal on paper, the devil will be in the details. And as usual, it's a fair bet the billionaire will come out just fine in the end.
Ross has made the media rounds pitching the deal as something pretty close to charity, pleading only for the chance to "be treated fairly."
"He wants to be treated like all the other franchise owners," the team's COO, Tom Garfinkel, told the Miami Herald, referring to the fact that neither the Marlins nor the Heat pays property taxes.
Sure, at face value Ross is putting more skin in the game. The deal that failed in Tally last year would have sent between $7 million and $16 million from hotel taxes every year toward paying off the construction for 26 years.
The new package would mean about $4 million less a year in the county coffers.
But that lost tax money would have a much more visible impact than the added hotel tax, which could have hurt the hospitality business but would have otherwise had minimal effect on the city.
That $4 million, on the other hand, is real money that's already being used every year to pay for stuff Miamians need. About $1.3 million of it goes to the school board, while another $1 million goes to the city government of impoverished Miami Gardens.
That's why both Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert have pushed back hard against the proposal, with Gilbert telling the Herald: "I can't pay my police officers, I can't pay FPL, I can't pay teachers we use for after-school activities with uncertainty."
But the deal's problems go deeper than looming cuts to teachers and Gardens cops.
No one has worked out just how long a tax-free deal the Fins would get out of this package. If it's a 30-year deal -- which is not far out of line from many other national stadium projects -- taxpayers will end up handing over almost the same $120 million they would have given Ross in last year's package. And that's assuming property taxes wouldn't have gone up significantly to match the improvements to the stadium.
"You're basically kicking the can down the road for taxpayers," says Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, who wrote a piece outlining his concerns about the deal. "I think it's fair to say that this is in the same ballpark as the old deal in terms of public subsidy."
And if the team signs on for a shorter-term tax-free haven, that just gives the franchise more leverage to threaten to leave Miami-Dade without a new deal in ten years.
In fact, just one day after making his friendly media rounds about his charitable offer to pay for renovations himself, Ross was already pulling out the oldest trump card that pro teams have used to bilk millions out of struggling municipalities.
"If I sell the team, I can assure you, with the viewpoint of the politicians and what they want to do, the new owner is going to move the team," Ross tells the Herald.
That gets to the rotten heart of the matter. Ross can dress up his request however he wants, but in the end he's still playing the same game with taxpayers: Give me millions of your dollars or I'll take my ball and go somewhere else.
The result, always, is politicians and voters making huge financial commitments based on fear, not on sound economic policy. It's emotional blackmail, plain and simple, with a beloved franchise as the bait, and coming from an owner who -- never, ever forget -- is worth $5.4 billion by Forbes' last estimate.
That generous $350 million renovation will impact Ross' personal finances roughly the same way that buying a used compact car would impact yours.
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As for those uber-lucrative Super Bowls that will start rolling in once politicians give Ross his tax break so he can retrofit Sun Life, well, many economists say they don't actually help the local economy at all.
Fins fans have emphatically said no to billionaire welfare once already. There's no reason to say yes this time just because Ross has flipped around a few cups in the everlasting NFL subsidy shell game.