Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Convention center costs barreling overbudget, gaining momentum and risks after second courtroom loss

In July, Mayor Karl Dean and his MDHA minions lost a jury trial they hoped would hold the line on the low-ball offer they made to Tower Investments to get land for the new Music City Center. They might have low-balled the figure to hold down costs to make the convention center project sexier to the Metro Council, but they lose they did.

Now they have lost their appeal of their July failure to a judge, who upheld the jury's decision:

The Metro Development and Housing Agency, which was in charge of acquiring land for the Music City Center, hoped Circuit Court Judge Joe Binkley would reduce a critical July jury verdict in the contentious eminent domain case against development firm Tower Investments. Instead, Binkley agreed with the jury’s verdict that MDHA undervalued the land, which the city condemned and took from Tower to construct the new convention center south of Broadway.

Binkley rejected motions filed by MDHA seeking a new trial or to have the $30.4 million jury verdict reduced.

As a result, the convention center’s land acquisition budget remains busted, and the budget for the entire $585 million project will be left with a razor-thin contingency. A spokeswoman for MDHA did not rule out a possible appeal, opening the door for the 2-year-old case to be dragged on even longer.

“I don’t reasonably disagree with what [the jury] did,” Binkley said from the bench, citing state law that allows a judge to grant a new trial if he “reasonably disagrees” with a jury verdict. “And I do not find that the evidence preponderates against the verdict. I approve the verdict.”

Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling, who is one of Mayor Karl Dean’s top aides, declined to comment as he left the courtroom.

So, was Karl Dean's right-hand man, Mr. Riebeling evacuating quickly to avoid having to answer tough questions about what might have to be cut from the Metro budget to pay for this monument to the tourism industry or was he headed out to figure which groups of constituents might be least angered by cuts to their basic services in exchange for a colossus that looks bigger every time we count the costs?

The Mayor's Office is in a catch-22. The Music City Center Authority swore emphatically that the project would not go over budget. If Metro appeals Tower again and loses, the budget-busting costs grow absurdly astronomical. And what have they salvaged for the other two legal cases they have to fight over land acquisition? They have already redirected tourist taxes that were subsidizing pro hockey to cover this project. How will they keep their promise? How can they if they risk losing another trial with two others in the pipeline? Metro's other budget items have been drastically cut over and over again, so how will we pay for these convention center losses and still benefit from Metro services?

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