The St. Louis football deal is fundamentally dishonest, and Kansas Citians shouldn’t have to pay for it

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The St. Louis Board of Aldermen last week passed a package to publicly finance a new stadium for its professional football franchise — a package that the city’s top financial administrator called “fiscally irresponsible.” What could possibly go wrong?

In a city whose elected officials cry poverty when residents wonder why dangerous buildings can’t be torn down, St. Louis is poised to cough up $150 million to build a cathedral for Stan Kroenke, the billionaire owner of the St. Louis Rams and a franchisee in the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is the National Football League.

At least one alderman got it right during a city meeting last Friday.

“We’re like at the strip club … and the stripper is throwing the money back at us,” said St. Louis alderman Sharon Tyus, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

If the St. Louis Board of Aldermen is acting like the guy with sunglasses resting on the tip of his nose, sitting alone with a cheap scotch in the strip joint as he tells himself, “I think she’s really into me,” then St. Louis comptroller Darlene Green is the bouncer at the door warning him not to touch the dancers.

Green told St. Louis’ elected officials that the funding arrangement was financial lunacy for the city, in part because the city’s funding sources may not even cover the costs that St. Louis has pledged. 

Green has also pointed out that the Rams generate $4 million a year in tax revenue, but that taxpayers pay more — $6 million — in debt service to the Edward Jones Dome, where the Rams play in downtown St. Louis. St. Louis is, in essence, coveting a new Lexus while it struggles to make monthly payments on its 1999 Pontiac Grand Am. Moreover, St. Louis wants that Lexus to impress a hot date that may end up ditching the city anyway.

This St. Louis situation is eerily reminiscent of the debate 10 years ago about Kansas City’s Power & Light District. Back before construction started on the downtown entertainment district, former Kansas City chief financial officer Deb Hinsvark warned the City Council that the deal could require annual subsidies from taxpayers to pay off bondholders. City officials listened, then went ahead and approved bonds for the Power & Light District. As we now know, Power & Light indeed requires annual subsidies in the $12 million to $15 million range, and will continue to do so until 2040.

One can reasonably argue that Power & Light has had a lasting impact on Kansas City. It gives downtown a sense of place and a destination for people to visit most hours of any day and most days of any year. It’s harder to rationalize a new Rams stadium that way. St. Louis officials trumpet the idea that it’s important to keep its designation as an “NFL city.” But doing so under this plan requires millions of taxpayer dollars to support an edifice that’s open only a few days a year. (NFL teams play eight home games a year; add a couple of preseason games and maybe a playoff game or two and you break 10 working days.) People who use the stadium are those who can afford the price of a ticket for an NFL game.

Furthermore, the Rams proposal attempts to lock down millions more in state tax dollars — estimates put Missouri’s investment at $400 million when interest is factored in. That’s a lofty sum for anyone in Chillicothe, Carthage or Kansas City to cough up for a city that values the St. Louis Cardinals and maybe even the St. Louis Blues more than the football team. Is it any surprise that one of the leading proponents of this plan is lame duck Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon?

Jackson County voters agreed to tax themselves, rather than the rest of Missouri, to fund renovations to Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium. A sales-tax hike in 2006 funded an easy majority of the more than $550 million in Truman Sports Complex upgrades. Even adjusted for inflation, the improvements to the Truman Sports Complex’s two stadiums cost far less than what St. Louis wants to do.

Yes, Missourians subsidize the Truman Sports Complex each year. But that’s more in the $3 million range — quite a bit less than the $12 million a year that Missourians are already forking over for the Edward Jones Dome.

When you think about it, it’s funny that the public is required to keep subsidizing (or be an ongoing investor in) a facility that a bunch of rich people openly acknowledge is a dump.

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