Fleecing of taxpayers on stadium deal gets more creative

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Zygi Wilf should be smiling. He's getting richer while Minnesotans pay the freight.

More than three years ago, Tom Goldstein reported in City Pages that the taxpayers' bill for the new Vikings' stadium could run as much as $1.2 billion. 

Though few listened, Goldstein was right. The much-balleyhooed figure of $498 million is turning out to be a joke as the public debt continues to accrue.

The latest reach for more coin comes from Sen. David Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis). He's authored a bill that would allow Minneapolis and St. Paul to impose a facility fee on all parking lots and ramps within a designated swath of each city.

In Minneapolis that area would be west of the Mississippi River, west of 35W, "north or east" of I-94, and south of Plymouth Avenue. St. Paul's fee would be applicable in a section north of the Mississippi River, west of the Lafayette Bridge parking lots, south of both 35E and I-94, and east of Chestnut Street.

The tax would be "paid by the owner of each… space." Proceeds would be used for such things as "public plazas… designed to promote enjoyment of the city for Minnesotans and tourists of all ages."

This would mean the Downtown East Commons Park, the planned 4.2-acre green space located a screen pass west of the stadium that, according to the city, "will serve the… community, workers, visitors, residents of Minneapolis and the region."

Unless the Vikings have something planned.

Part of the stadium giveaway brokered by those representing the people gives the Vikings and other VIPs exclusive use of the park for almost a third of a year. 

If Dibble's bill passes, it will be on the books collecting cash when the new stadium opens next summer.

The legislator's proposal doesn't specify how much the tax would be. But you won't get a say. The two-page bill states that it would become law "without the requirement of local approval."

Other NFL cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh impose a similar tax. It's 8 percent in Cleveland, 20 in Ravens territory, and 40 in Pittsburgh, where it's estimated to generate nearly $61 million this year.

In Baltimore the tax bankrolls the Charm City Circulator, a free downtown bus service. In the City of Lakes it could pay for turning the park into a skating rink so Gisele Bundchen and her offspring can sip Godiva hot chocolate in the days leading up to Super Bowl LII.  

How the park will operate as a public asset with private interests holding the right of first refusal is anyone's guess.

What is certain is that it's costing city taxpayers a bundle with a price tag that never stops rising. Twenty million to buy the land. Nearly $20 million to build it. Millions annually to maintain it. Yet it will still be off limits to taxpayers during our most hospitable days.  

Dibble's motivation remains unclear. He didn't respond to repeated interview requests. Perhaps it's because he's throwing Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges a softball.

Hodges' predecessor R.T. Rybak kept the NFL in town, then melted back into the private sector to leave his successor to figure out how to pay for the auxiliary costs. The park and the two nearby city parking ramps are prime examples.

The city is on the cuff for the park and one ramp for no less than $62 million. That figure doesn't include interest on the 30-year bonds, which is how Minneapolis is covering the tab. The second ramp was bought by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority for $17.1 million.

In a January StarTribune story by Eric Roper, the city's chief financial officer Kevin Carpenter said "…  nobody's that stupid to say 'I'm going to put unreasonable stuff out there so I can screw myself later.'" But that's exactly what's happening with the ramps.

Roper reported how the ramps' revenue estimates were fudged and costs laughably understated when the deal was sold to the public.

For instance, the two ramps' annual utility costs were projected at nearly $99,000, despite the fact that Minneapolis' 2,020-stall Leamington ramp's utilities were almost $335,000 a year.

This, added with wildly optimistic profit forecasts, adds up to a bill that could be $31 million in the red. Enter Dibble's parking facilities fee.

"The city is effectively totally immunized from any start-up risk," Carpenter also told the Strib last winter. "Zero. Doesn't exist."

Remember those words when you look at your parking stub a year from now.

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